COLUMBIA -- Law enforcement moved one step closer Wednesday to having the right to search people on probation and parole without warrants.

For more than three hours, House members weighed arguments that pit gang violence and murders in Colleton County against abuse by highway patrol troopers caught on tape.

Democrats attacked the legislation as giving too much unchecked power to police before the House voted 81-26 to give the bill key approval. It needs one more vote in the House before returning to the Senate, which first passed the bill last February and could agree to the changes the House made quickly and send it to the governor's desk.

Rep. Todd Rutherford, D-Columbia, said he thinks the bill would allow law enforcement officers to use what's intended as a crime-fighting tool to search innocent people, although the bill's supporters insisted safeguards are in place to prevent that abuse.

"This bill is not just bad," Rutherford said. "It is the worst thing that I have seen in a long time, if any of you bothered to read it."

The bill allows warrantless searches for people on probation and parole, including juveniles, and the vehicles they own and drive. It would not allow the searches in their homes.

Officers would have to verify the person is on probation or parole before they search them. Offenders convicted of misdemeanors that carry jail sentences less than a year would not be subjected to the warrantless searches.

The state Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services would have to review records of who is searched for any patterns of abuse.

Rutherford accused Republican Speaker Bobby Harrell of Charleston of yielding to pressure by Democratic Charleston Mayor Joe Riley to pass the bill, or be blamed for the Lowcountry's high crime rate.

Harrell said the bill is about public safety. He noted that 30 percent of the murders in North Charleston are committed by people on probation or parole.

Probationers and parolees do not have the same rights as law-abiding citizens, he said.

"They are still being punished," Harrell said from the floor podium.

Riley assembled a statewide coalition of law enforcement officers and elected officials who think the Legislature should grant officers this and other crime-fighting tools.

Despite the statewide showing of police chiefs, sheriffs and officers in the House balcony Wednesday, some Democrats, including Rutherford, said the bill would grow state government as a means to solve a problem in Charleston.

Rep. Wendell Gilliard, D-Charleston, took exception. "This is not about Charleston and one mayor. This is about the state of South Carolina and all the mayors," he said.

Gilliard tried to humanize the issue by reminding legislators about the November drive-by shooting in Colleton County that killed a toddler and two others. He said the Legislature should listen to law enforcement so they can protect themselves and the community.

Former Legislative Black Caucus Chairman Rep. Leon Howard, D-Columbia, was quick to remind the House of videotapes that surfaced in 2008 showing abuse by state troopers. Dashboard cameras caught troopers who kicked suspects, handcuffed one to a bumper, used the N-word and chased a man through an apartment complex, among other incidents.

"Have we forgotten?" Howard said.

Both Democrats and Republican acknowledged the ranks of good law enforcement officials across South Carolina. Charleston Chief Greg Mullen listened to the debate at the Statehouse with about 30 law enforcement officers from Columbia to North Charleston to Bennettsville.

Mullen said law enforcement agencies have safeguards in place to protect the public from abuse: strong policies, good training and supervision.

"Victims, the citizens are telling folks loud and clear that they want law enforcement to have the tools to address the issues," he said.

Riley, who on Wednesday was in Washington, said the House's vote is a significant achievement for the state's residents. "What this legislation does is make sure that hardened criminals have less capacity to exact their lawlessness in their communities throughout South Carolina," he said.

North Charleston Police Chief Jon Zumalt, who did not attend the session, said the measure is even more crucial, given the news that the state will consider freeing up to 3,000 prison inmates to save money in tight budget times.

"This would at least help us make sure offenders are living up to the terms of their release," he said.

What's next?

The House voted 81-26 Wednesday to give key approval to a bill to allow law enforcement officers to search probationers and parolees without a warrant. The House needs to give the bill final approval, which is expected today without debate.

The bill then goes back to the Senate to approve the changes the House made. If the Senate agrees, the bill goes to the governor's desk. A disagreement could send the legislation to conference negotiations.

Glenn Smith contributed to this report. Reach Yvonne Wenger at 803-926-7855 or ywenger@postandcourier.com.