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Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Pat-downs might make TSA felons

CONCORD – Any government security worker viewing or touching someone’s private parts at airports would be a felon and wind up on the state’s Sexual Offender Registry for life under legislation a Litchfield Republican lawmaker tried to advance Tuesday.

Rep. George Lambert said the intense pat-downs, high-tech invasive screening machines and even the occasional strip search at the nation’s airports for security reasons have gotten out of control.

Lambert urged the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee that these “invasions of privacy” by the Transportation Safety Administration and other agencies must only occur if there is probable cause.

“We understand searching for weapons and searching for explosives,” Lambert began. “When we have citizens who are strip-searched and have no ability to leave under color of law, at what point have we gone too far? We need to protect our citizens from invasion that exceeds the limitation of the TSA security procedure.”

The bill attracted national attention Tuesday when The Drudge Report put it on its front page. This caused House spokespeople to field calls from many United States and foreign news outlets.

Darren Tapp said he took a train from Winchester, Ky., to Concord to visit family in December to avoid the invasive searches at the airport.

This came after he became offended during a similar trip in 2009, when a TSA worker touched his quadricep.

Tapp said he’s given up his career dream of being a mathematician because, facing this level of personal scrutiny, he refuses to fly.

“The mania of trying to impose an impossible goal has killed one person’s dreams,” said Tapp, who lives in Concord.

“You may accuse me of being a dreamer, but I can imagine a day when we can tell our children that presumed innocent is not just a nice idea but a concept we have incorporated throughout our society.”

The bill (HB 628) makes it a sexual assault either to touch or view with a state-of-the-art body scanner someone’s breast or genitalia without probable cause. Upon conviction, the security worker becomes a Tier III sex offender.

Gina Marie Presutti of Manchester said these scanners dehumanize people.

“I feel the things that are happening today are so infringing on our personal space and our personal rights,” Presutti testified. “It is such a slippery slope that is being taken right now.”

No one appeared to testify against the bill. Several members of the committee that heard the bill questioned if it went much too far.

Rep. Steve Shurtleff, D-Concord, is a retired deputy U.S. marshal.

“Somebody working at a metal detector at Hillsborough County Superior Court South in Nashua merely suspects there is a weapon and then does a hand-held wand search. With this bill, they could be charged with a felony,” Shurtleff said. “Isn’t that more than a little excessive?”

Rep. Gene Charron, R-Chester, said federal law would appear to prevent the state from dictating what the TSA can or can’t do.

Rep. Laura Pantelakos, D-Rockingham, said Americans understand that when they want to board a plane, they first must surrender some of their personal privacy.

After the hearing, an angry and loud Tadd confronted Pantelakos about her views.

Rep. David Welch, R-Kingston, also said the bill scapegoats law enforcement.

“This bill doesn’t answer it; it doesn’t solve the problem in my estimation. This takes the person giving answers, and following orders of his job, and makes him the criminal,” Welch said.

Manchester-Boston Regional Airport Deputy Director J. Brian O’Neill attended the hearing.

“We’re just monitoring this,” O’Neill said.

Manchester-Boston Regional Airport doesn’t have an advanced image scanner, but the airport does use pat-downs.

Passengers can be subject to a pat-down if an alarm is set off or if they’re randomly chosen.

Rep. Andrew Manuse, R-Derry, said 145 people signed a Republican Liberty Caucus petition supporting the bill.

“Maybe this will tell them at TSA that New Hampshire means business. We don’t want this type of thing to go on in our state. We’re saying stop, don’t do it any more,” Manuse said.

“With these procedures … I think the terrorists are winning. They are destroying our country, and we are saying what liberties are we defending?”

No state has passed such a law, though there has been unrest in Congress about the unauthorized release of TSA images on the Internet.

The U.S. Senate last fall approved making it a federal crime to share TSA images with anyone.

Last fall, Meg McLain, of Keene, said she was brought to tears when she refused a full-body scan at an airport in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. She refused to submit to a pat-down and ended up flying out of an airport in Tallahassee that did not use these scanners.

Kevin Landrigan can be reached at 321-7040 or