AUSTIN (Nexstar) — People accused of groping an adult could soon face steeper penalties, as state lawmakers sent a bill to strengthen sexual assault rules to the Governor’s desk on Wednesday.
The Texas House passed Senate Bill 194 in a 143-0 vote Wednesday, after giving initial approval the day before. The bill passed the state Senate unanimously in March.
Under current laws that cover sexual assault in Texas, unwanted groping of someone 17 years or older is punishable by a class C misdemeanor — the same as a traffic citation. SB 194 would create the offense of “indecent assault,” a class A misdemeanor. Offenders would face up to one year in jail and/or a maximum fine of $4,000.
“I think it would be shocking to people, this level of groping conduct that is right now a non-arrestable class C-offense,” State Rep. Joe Moody, who spearheaded the legislation in the House, said. “With the way this bill is now, it is a class-A misdemeanor, same as an assault, and so we are going to arrest people for this type of conduct.”
“That’s the right way to penalize for this type of conduct and when we’re talking about criminal justice reform it doesn’t just mean limiting the encounters with law enforcement, it means right-sizing penalties and right now this was a serious gap in the law,” Moody explained.
Moody filed the legislation last session, but it stalled in the Calendars committee amid other legislation that ended up taking priority in both chambers.
Since then, a case involving an 18-year-old West Texas high school student with mental disabilities took the spotlight, after she revealed to school officials that she was sexually abused by her step-father. James Holland was sentenced to life in prison without parole after pleading guilty to capital murder in the death of Holli Jeffcoat, who was pregnant at the time of her murder.
Jeffcoat’s family worked with lawmakers on the language of the bill, to create harsher penalties for the kind of abuse authorities believe the adult teen endured.
“Let’s focus on Holli this is Holli’s time to shine,” her grandmother, Sherrie Ray, said in a 2018 interview. “I know we are getting it passed I know we are. We are walking out of the capitol and I’d love to see a whole community cheering her on.”
“We take this seriously, this is not conduct that is okay,” Moody said. “This is not a traffic ticket style conduct and so we are going to treat it accordingly.”
“If you are sexually groping someone you are going to be arrested for it now,” he continued. “The days of that being a traffic ticket are over.”
State Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, authored the bill.
“What we were told is that prosecution wouldn’t pursue these because it wasn’t clear in the statute where the offense began, and ended,” Perry added. “So, now we’ve fixed it and we anticipate prosecutors taking it so those victims, and hopefully it will prevent future victims, so those victims know that if they come forward now that the law is going to be there to support them.”
Jeffcoat’s grandmother said she hoped the 18-year-old’s death would have a lasting impact.
“She’s not going to be forgotten forever, and I don’t want her forgotten,” she said.
“That law– I hope to heck it does something to people, it’s got to,” Ray said. “It’s got to wake somebody up.”
The bill is destined for the Governor’s desk, for Greg Abbott to affix his signature or veto.