By CHARLEY WILKISON
When young folks tell me they are interested in politics, I like to tell them that when we humans rejected the perfect government in the Garden of Eden, we have been getting what we deserved ever since — government run by us, humans.
Tuesday, I was working on the west side of the Capitol all morning and ran up to the Gallery to sit with friends in kind of a tradition as the Texas House of Representatives adjourned Sine Die and ended the First Called Special of the 82nd Legislative Session.
It’s too bad that most Texans will never understand that Speaker Joe Straus took a huge political gamble and stood up for public safety and rank and file law enforcement officers who need the right to sometimes search those entering public buildings in order to keep us all safe.
A few minutes before I arrived in the Gallery, I had heard the news that SB 29 and HB 41, the so-called “anti-groping bills,” were dead on arrival. State Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview, filed them during the regular session, but they didn’t make it.
As a legislative advocate on behalf of Texas law enforcement officers, I head a team of folks who pay close attention to any issue relating to Texas peace officers. We immediately flagged the bill when the Governor placed it on the call for the special session. We don’t represent the federal airport security bureaucrats who search you before you get on a plane. And the pat-down bill was not anymore important to us than any other. Instead, it was the broad language that did not exclude Texas peace officers that caused me to take notice.
In an effort to stop the uncomfortable situation of being subjected to airport searches, the authors of the bill had left the language too broad and failed to exclude Texas officers.
Before a law enforcement officer can search you as you enter a public building or public venue such as a concert or ballgame, they have to establish a legal term called “reasonable suspicion.” Now, reasonable suspicion isn’t for most of us law-abiding folks here in Liberty Hill. It’s designed to help officers use their training to spot somebody who is potentially dangerous. Street gang members, international drug cartel members or someone behaving strangely. Reasonable suspicion is the legal notch just before you get to probable cause.
I visited with the pertinent committee chairs and soon had a deal struck so they could pass this bill, but exclude Texas law enforcement officers so they could still do their job and keep an eye out for terrorists, drug and gun-runners and crazy people who like to hurt people.
Often the language in a proposed bill is not accurate and we have to cure that with an amendment. It happens a few hundred times a day in the Capitol. Everyone agreed on the language of the amendment and we all relaxed, sort of.
The morning that the bill was on the House Calendar and was headed for a floor vote, the author, Rep. Simpson had his assistant phone mine and tell us the deal was off. He was not going to accept our language as a friendly amendment and we were on our own. In the Capitol, your word is your bond and we had to re-evaluate our position.
We turned to an old friend. We went to Speaker Straus and explained that if two warring street gangs from Dallas, El Paso, Houston, or San Antonio were subpoenaed to testify in a drive-by shooting or a drug deal gone bad that our officers would not be able to search them under the reasonable suspicion rule.
Thank goodness for people like Joe Straus who aren’t afraid of bullies. He went out, held a news conference and said that if the bill was not fixed it would die. Plain and simple.
He wanted Texas police officers to have the law on their side, not on the side of criminal defense attorneys and the thugs they represent.
The bill was never fixed, the language remained vague and unclear. Things got so hot that people were going to the Speaker’s staff claiming to represent me and claiming there were peace treaties when there were no agreements. We kept the lines of communication open and clear. We were straightforward and very clear about what did and didn’t matter to Texas officers.
In the end, Joe Straus kept his word. By slowing down the bill and by listening to those who represent the hard-working men and women of Texas law enforcement, he avoided a potential law that might have stopped airport searches but would have inadvertently also stopped officers from being able to do their job and keep the public safe. An amazing and true story about a Texas hero right in front of our eyes — Joe Straus.
Charley Wilkison of Liberty Hill is Director of Public Affairs for the Combined Law Enforcement
Associations of Texas.