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Plans to toughen penalties for those who cause airport security breaches in New Jersey continue to advance in the state Legislature.
The measure, passed Thursday by the Assembly, was spurred by a case earlier this year in which a lovesick graduate student slipped under a rope barrier at Newark Liberty International Airport to say goodbye to his girlfriend.
"We need to send a stronger message that airport security rules meant to protect the public and keep airport travel orderly cannot be taken lightly," said Assemblyman Albert Coutinho, who sponsored the measure with fellow Democrat L. Grace Spencer.
Both are Newark residents, as is state Sen. Ron Rice, who is sponsoring identical legislation that has been referred to Senate's Law and Public Safety Committee.
"We've been in a new day and age since 9/11 and our state laws must accurately reflect that reality," Coutinho said.
If the legislation becomes law, it would create the crime of entering a restricted airport property in violation of federal security requirements.
It also would create two restricted areas in public airports -- a holding area for passengers and property that's been screened, and an operational area the public could not enter. Access to the latter area would be restricted by fences, and signs would be posted alerting the public that it's a prohibited area.
On Jan. 3, Haisong Jiang, a 28-year-old doctoral student in a joint molecular biosciences program at Rutgers University, passed under a rope and entered a restricted area at the airport. He told authorities that he wanted to spend about 20 extra minutes with his girlfriend, who was leaving for California after visiting him in New Jersey.
The Piscataway man was arrested five days later and eventually pleaded guilty to defiant trespassing as part of a plea deal. He was sentenced to 100 hours of community service and paid $658 in fines and court costs. Several state and federal lawmakers were outraged that Jiang could not face more serious charges.
The security breach led the Transportation Security Administration to shut down one of the airport's three terminals for six hours, stranding thousands of passengers and contributing to long delays. About 200 flights worldwide were delayed or canceled, and airlines estimated that they lost millions of dollars as the terminal was emptied and passengers were rescreened.
"His goodbye kiss cost taxpayers and commuters thousands of dollars," Spencer said. "Lovesick is fine, but it cannot involve jeopardizing the lives of thousands of people and violating the security regulations."
If the proposed legislation becomes law, anyone who knowingly trespasses in the passenger holding and operations areas would be guilty of a fourth-degree crime punishable by a fine of up to $10,000, imprisonment for up to 18 months, or both.
"It's hard to believe that someone who breaches airport security may simply get what amounts to just a slap on the wrist," Coutinho said. "Clearly, this is an area of our law that needs to be stricter."