Bi­par­ti­san bills would pun­ish grop­ing with up to year in jail

Houston Chronicle - - NEWSMAKERS - By Sami Spar­ber

AUSTIN — In July 2016, De­nali Wil­son was on her way home from work in El Paso when a stranger fol­lowed her home and grabbed her crotch.

When she re­ported the in­ci­dent to po­lice, Wil­son was sur­prised to learn that un­der Texas law, the of­fi­cers could not ar­rest the man who as­saulted her — much less launch an in­ves­ti­ga­tion to find him. Grop­ing is the low­est-level crim­i­nal of­fense in the state pe­nal code, pun­ish­able by a $500 fine at most.

“Af­ter that, I ended up en­ter­ing into a process of an in­ter­nal af­fairs com­plaint with the of­fi­cers be­cause I was un­der the im­pres­sion that this couldn’t be true, that the of­fi­cers must be mis­rep­re­sent­ing the Texas Pe­nal Code,” Wil­son told law­mak­ers at a hear­ing in 2017, when she tes­ti­fied for a bill to change that law. “How could it be true that this could hap­pen to me and there’s very lit­tle re­spond­ing of­fi­cers could do to help me, to pro­tect me?”

Ex­perts on sex­ual as­sault laws say Texas — which puts grop­ing an adult un­der the cat­e­gory of “as­sault by of­fen­sive con­tact” — is one of six states with such a light penalty.

Two Texas law­mak­ers, one a Repub­li­can and one a Demo­crat, want to put more teeth into the law and have filed bills to raise the max­i­mum penalty for grop­ing to a year in jail and a $4,000 fine.

At present, “it’s ba­si­cally a speed­ing ticket,” said Chris Kaiser, di­rec­tor of pub­lic pol­icy for the Texas As­so­ci­a­tion Against Sex­ual As­sault. “It’s on par with traf­fic vi­o­la­tions or petty theft un­der $100. Typ­i­cally, you don’t get ar­rested. You’ll get fined, if any­thing, and then go on your way.”

By con­trast, punch­ing some­one

in the arm could re­sult in jail time if it leaves a bruise or causes an in­jury, Kaiser said.

“The cur­rent law … is re­ally just de­signed for some­thing like a cou­ple of drunk peo­ple out­side a bar, push­ing and shov­ing, but no­body re­ally gets hurt,” Kaiser said. “It’s not de­signed to ad­dress a se­ri­ous sex­ual as­sault.”

Reached by tele­phone Fri­day, Wil­son, now 26 and in law school, said she no longer sup­ports harsher pun­ish­ments as a means of crim­i­nal re­form. But her story prompted state Rep. Joe Moody, DEl Paso, to file a bill in 2017 that would re­clas­sify grop­ing as “in­de­cent as­sault” and el­e­vate penal­ties.

It didn’t pass, so this year Moody and state Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lub­bock, filed iden­ti­cal leg­is­la­tion that would make grop­ing a Class A mis­de­meanor in­stead of a Class C mis­de­meanor.

“Grop­ing some­one is more se­ri­ous than that, and so we need to right-size the penalty,” said Moody, who filed House Bill 309. “Right now, there is a huge gap in this law.”

Bev­erly Mathews, as­sis­tant dis­trict at­tor­ney for Travis County, said if the law passes, it would give pros­e­cu­tors more lee­way to file charges in cases of un­wanted sex­ual con­tact against an adult that do not in­volve pen­e­tra­tion.

“It’s more than of­fen­sive con­tact, but we can’t make the case be­cause legally, it doesn’t fit the pa­ram­e­ters,” Matthews said. “If these bills were to pass, we’d have a mid­dle ground for pros­e­cut­ing of­fenses that are above a Class C mis­de­meanor but below a se­cond de­gree felony.”

The new clas­si­fi­ca­tion should also de­ter fu­ture of­fend­ers, said Perry, who filed Se­nate Bill 194.

“The $500 fine doesn’t seem to be get­ting peo­ple’s at­ten­tion, so mov­ing it to pos­si­ble jail time of zero to one years and a $4000 fine will be a pretty ef­fec­tive de­ter­rent, we hope,” Perry said. “If it isn’t, we will come back and read­dress the penalty.”

If passed, Kaiser said, the leg­is­la­tion will send an im­por­tant mes­sage to sur­vivors in Texas: We be­lieve you.

“It’s a real slap in the face (to sur­vivors) to say this trau­matic event, this sex­ual as­sault, just doesn’t re­ally mat­ter un­der Texas law,” Kaiser said. “We’re hop­ing that by el­e­vat­ing the se­ri­ous­ness to re­flect what it ac­tu­ally is — a trau­matic sex­ual as­sault — that there will be some af­fir­ma­tion and some ac­knowl­edg­ment of what vic­tims have gone through.”

Moody said the leg­is­la­tion failed to pass in 2017 be­cause any bill re­lated to sex­ual as­sault was thought to be a “po­ten­tial ve­hi­cle” for the bath­room bill. This ses­sion, with sup­port in both cham­bers and on both sides of the isle, Moody said he is con­fi­dent the leg­is­la­tion will be signed into law.

“This bill, in no un­cer­tain terms, was de­railed by the bath­room bill last ses­sion,” Moody said. “Now that that con­ver­sa­tion is be­hind us and more ra­tio­nal minds seem to be op­er­at­ing this ses­sion, I think we’ll be able to move this bill fairly quickly through the process.”

Perry said Texas is slow to en­hance penal­ties in gen­eral, but a “height­ened aware­ness” toward sex­ual as­sault is­sues this ses­sion may help.

“We like to get it right when we do it,” Perry said. “And we will get it right when we get this done.”

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.