AUSTIN — A local state representative took the first step in tightening statutes against sexual predators after several officials heard of a “loophole” in Texas law.
State Rep. Tony Dale, R-Cedar Park, state Rep. JD Sheffield, R-Gatesville, and others co-authored a bill to better allow law enforcement to prosecute adults who solicit minors online for sexual acts — a crime currently difficult to enforce in Texas, according to officials.
“A lot of times, child predators start their engagement or the grooming of their victims by online communication, and we want to be able to protect the children and minors in all of our communities against that behavior,” said Justin Wood, an assistant district attorney with Harris County at a Capitol news conference
Tuesday. “With this bill, it would prevent online predators from engaging with (victims) and when they have an intent to commit a sexual offense against a particular victim … we can prosecute them.”
In 2005, Texas adopted a law that made it a third-degree felony for adults to solicit a child 17 years old or younger via the Internet. But in 2013, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals unanimously struck down part of the law because its vagueness violated the First Amendment.
The Harris County district attorney’s office was involved in the 2013 appellate case — known as the Ex Parte Lo decision — that resulted in overturning part of the original law.
The new bill, House Bill 861, tightens language to better define a minor, better address an aggressor’s mental state and addresses issues with freedom of speech, officials said.
Dane, who is the main author of the bill, said the issue came to his attention when a family in Cedar Park contacted him after an adult solicited their daughter on social media.
“There were messages from a grown man who had met our family in a public venue,” said Philip Hornsey, a spokesman who read a statement from the family. “They began innocuously but escalated to the point of soliciting sexual intercourse with a girl he explicitly knew and acknowledged was a minor. Moreover, there were offers to pick her up from school and queries as to when her parents would not be home.”
The Cedar Park father said the family intervened before things went further, but Williamson County prosecutors were unable to file charges.
“As it stands now, just the online communication short of luring that child to a meeting spot or coming into these people’s homes, we can’t prosecute that situation,” Wood said. “Under this proposed bill, if they have an intent to commit a sexual offense against a child they are chatting with, texting with or communicating with, then that will be illegal behavior.”
Sheffield said he joined the bill because he had a similar issue arise in Stephenville, with the Erath County district attorney’s office.
“There was a specific case involving a minor and a sting operation that led to an arrest and conviction,” he said. However, when the statute was overturned, “the case and conviction had to be thrown out.”