A Charleston lawmaker has filed a collection of Statehouse bills aimed at protecting and aiding the homeless, including one that would make the act of assaulting the homeless a hate crime.
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If the measure were to pass — which appears to be a long shot — the homeless would gain a protective status that’s so far been denied to other minority groups in South Carolina, because the state does not recognize hate in interpreting criminal motivation.
Tuesday was the first of four days that lawmakers can file proposed bills in advance of the upcoming legislative session. Bills filed Tuesday included:
H.3344, by Rep. Wendell Gilliard, D-Charleston, would create “the hate crime of assault and battery upon a homeless person.”
H.4343, by Rep. Bakari Sellers, D-Bamberg, would increase the penalty for criminal domestic violence to 180 days in jail from 30 days in jail.
H.4352, also by Sellers, would require the state to release data on the high school graduation rate, based on race or ethnicity, by Sept. 1 of each year.
H.4356, by Rep. Raye Felder, R-York, would let voters decide if their county should raise the gas tax to pay for road repairs.
H.4370, by Rep. John King, D-York, would allow funeral homes to refuse to release bodies until they are paid for their services.
H.4373, by Rep. Josh Putnam, R-Greenville, would require S.C. public officials to receive “continuing ethics instruction.”
“I just figured we always do things that say we love and care about animals,” said sponsor state Rep. Wendell Gilliard, D-Charleston. “But we put more emphasis on them than we do on the homeless people in the state of South Carolina.”
Gilliard, a five-year Statehouse veteran, said the homeless deserve special protections because of their vulnerability.
“Being out there and having no place to go, they become more susceptible to robbery, rape and murder,” he said. “They actually become prey.”
Gilliard’s bill was included in this week’s legislative filings ahead of the start of the annual Statehouse session in January.
As written, the bill would create a two-tier level of penalties for someone convicted of an assault and battery on the homeless, listing it as a misdemeanor hate crime.
A first offense would draw imprisonment for not more than 30 days, while a second or subsequent offense must be punished by imprisonment for not more than one year.
The penalties are in addition to the incarceration ranges already on the books for the primary offense.
Under the bill’s wording, a homeless person is defined as an individual “who does not have a permanent residence who is either living on the streets, in a car, or in a homeless or other type of shelter.”
Charleston School of Law associate professor Miller Shealy, who teaches criminal law, said hate crime legislation has generally been found to be constitutional elsewhere in the country, as long as the legislation does not infringe on free speech.
But he added that politically, the effort probably faces “an uphill battle” in South Carolina as the Legislature would have to grapple with making a statement about expressing and condemning acts against a certain group versus the argument of equal application of the law.
Hate crime protection isn’t the only homeless bill offered by Gilliard. Another proposal would require all the state’s counties to annually publish and distribute a pamphlet identifying locations within their borders where the homeless or needy can go to receive shelter, health care, food and other assistance.
“The costs of the publishing and distribution must be borne by the county,” the bill said.
Local law enforcement would be responsible for distributing the pamphlets when they come into contact with the homeless. The publication would include a prepaid phone card, Gilliard said.
Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551