COLUMBIA -- Urged by law enforcement leaders, state lawmakers on Thursday moved a step closer to allowing police to search people on probation and parole without a warrant.
A subcommittee sent the bill to allow the warrantless searches to the full House Judiciary Committee and put it on track for a showdown on the chamber floor. The proposed law is aimed at protecting the public from career criminals.
Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen said warrantless searches will help deter illegal activity and make sure dangerous criminals are locked up.
"We're looking for the violent, repeat offenders who are victimizing the community on a continuing basis while they are out on probation and parole," Mullen said. He traveled to the Statehouse complex to advocate for the bill on behalf of a coalition of law enforcement officials, solicitors, victims' advocates and elected officials, including Charleston Mayor Joe Riley.
Riley, along with Charleston Sens. Glenn McConnell, a Republican, and Robert Ford, a Democrat, have led the charge on pushing for a package of anti-crime tools to pass the Legislature.
Riley said the warrantless search bill is a "reasonable" measure to make sure that individuals are abiding by the terms and conditions of their release from prison.
"It will make our community safer," he said.
Riley and Mullen called on advocates to continue to push for the law to be changed as the bill faces the next round of hurdles.
For the past two years, the Senate has passed the bill, only to see it hung up in the House.
The bill, which has been through a series of compromises, did make it out of subcommittee last year, but it was so late in the session that it never made it to the House floor. The bill was sent back to the subcommittee at the beginning of this year to address some additional concerns, including removing a provision that would have allowed the parolees' and probationers' homes to also be searched without a warrant. In the bill's current form, the searches would be limited to offenders' person or private vehicle.
The Senate passed the bill in February.
Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, a Charleston Democrat and former prosecutor, said he will ultimately vote for the bill, after consideration about the constitutional concerns at play. When a person is convicted of a crime, some of their rights are diminished, he said.
"That happens anytime someone is convicted, especially of serious crimes," Stavrinakis said. "This is just an extension of that."
Victoria Middleton, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in South Carolina, said the organization opposes the bill. No evidence exists to support the suggestion that warrantless searches will deter crime and if it passes, the state could be inviting constitutional challenges, according to the ACLU.
Rep. Mike Sottile, R-Isle of Palms, said he's heard from many constituents who want the Legislature to give law enforcement the ability to search parolees and probationers without a warrant.
"I'm going to support it," he said.