By ANGELA K. BROWN
FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) - A former Miss USA's tearful claim that she was groped during a pat-down at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport could be a criminal matter under a bill gaining momentum in the Texas Legislature.
The proposed Texas law, aimed at people conducting security checkpoints at airports and public buildings, would make it a felony to intentionally touch someone's private areas - even on top of clothing - unless the officer or agent has probable cause to believe the person is carrying something illegal.
State Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview, who sponsored the bill, said Friday that the invasive pat-down searches at airports nationwide are a violation of the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable searches. Last fall the Transportation Security Administration implemented a new pat-down procedure that includes a security worker running a hand up the inside of passengers' legs and along the cheek of the buttocks, as well as making direct contact with the groin area.
"We're taking away people's dignity and freedom," said Simpson, whose bill was approved in committee and is now awaiting debate by the full House. Simpson has 70 co-authors on the bill, which is more than 90 percent of the votes needed to pass it. The bill then would go to the Texas Senate for consideration.
Simpson insists that his law would pass muster, even though federal law requires all airline passengers to undergo a screening, which sometimes involves a pat-down. If the bill becomes Texas law, the only way a TSA agent can avoid fear of prosecution is if a traveler gives written consent to the pat-down search after being fully informed of the procedures, Simpson said.
The TSA does not comment on pending legislation, said Nicholas Kimball, an agency spokesman.
"We wish we lived in a world where security procedures weren't necessary, but that simply isn't the case," Kimball said. "We know that terrorists continue trying to manipulate societal norms to evade detection and the measures in place are the best tools currently available to mitigate risk. As we explore ways to improve our approach and become more risk-based and intelligence-driven, we welcome travelers' feedback and appreciate their understanding."
Susie Castillo, who was crowned Miss USA in 2003 representing Massachusetts, said she was "molested" during a security pat-down at DFW Airport on April 21. In a video she taped minutes afterward, a tearful Castillo said she had opted against walking through the body scanner, and then a female TSA agent touched her crotch four times during the pat-down.
Castillo said this pat-down was different than those at other airports during her frequent travels. Castillo, now an actress, did not say she felt that she was being singled out.
"I'm hoping that other people that feel violated as an American will make these complaints and ... maybe something will change in the future," Castillo said in the video. "Hopefully they will hear me loud and clear."
TSA spokesman Luis Casanova said the screener was questioned and did the pat-down correctly, but apologized for any discomfort to Castillo.
According to the TSA, 898 people who underwent or witnessed a pat-down complained to the agency from November through March, and 252 million travelers were screened during that period. The TSA says less than 3 percent of travelers undergo pat-downs, including those who opt out of a body scanner or when it detects a problem and those who require an additional screening when a metal detector goes off.
Since the new anti-terrorism screening measures took effect last year, the American Civil Liberties Union has reported receiving more than 1,000 complaints. Those travelers claim that TSA agents have patted their genitals, run fingers through their hair or along their bras or waistbands.
In Alaska, 59 of the 60 lawmakers have asked a U.S. Senate committee to hold hearings in that state on what they call the "often invasive procedures" used by the TSA, and they're researching what they can do on a state level.
"You shouldn't have to sacrifice your dignity when you travel, and air travel is such an important part of travel in Alaska," said Mark Gnadt, press secretary for House Democrats in the Alaska Legislature.
At least two federal lawsuits have been filed over the pat-downs.