Bipartisan bills would punish groping with up to year in jail
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.”