COLUMBIA — The S.C. House of Representatives did not have the votes Tuesday to overturn Gov. Nikki Haley’s veto of a bill that would have allowed many South Carolina criminals to hide their law-breaking records from prospective employers, schools, youth groups and even law enforcement investigators.
The House needed a two-thirds majority to override. The vote – 62 members voted to uphold the governor’s veto, and only 49, to override – was not nearly enough. The Senate will not vote, as supermajorities in both houses were needed to override the veto.
The bill, H. 3127, was passed earlier this month by large majorities in the House and the Senate.
However, in the past week, the bill began to spark fierce opposition from law enforcement officials, who said they only recently understood the full ramifications of what they called a generally worded bill.
The goal of the legislation, supporters said, was to make it easier for people who made youthful mistakes to get a job. But the debate Tuesday was about the public’s right to know what crimes people had committed.
“The law enforcement community and the victims’ community pretty much oppose this bill in its present form,” said Jeff Moore, executive director of the S.C. Sheriffs’ Association.
Moore was one of a who’s who in state law enforcement who said Tuesday morning before the House vote that he believed the General Assembly was on the verge of allowing perhaps tens of thousands of criminals to make their records secret. Others included the S.C. Solicitors’ Association and SLED Chief Mark Keel.
Keel, aided by an former SLED colleague Rep. Eddie Tallon, R-Spartanburg, personally lobbied dozens of lawmakers before the vote.
“This bill is incredibly overbroad,” said Keel, who ticked off a list of offenses that criminals could ask to have kept secret, or expunged from their records, after meeting certain requirements.
Keel said his research showed the offenses included second-degree assault and battery, DUI, breach of trust, third-degree burglary, shoplifting, certain kinds of embezzlement, simple arson, third-degree criminal sexual conduct and exploitation of a child or vulnerable adult.
“People working in child care or adult services industries could get their records expunged,” Keel said. “Basically, only really serious crimes or violent crimes wouldn’t be allowed to be expunged.”
The bill’s key sponsor, Rep. Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, said before the vote that people who opposed the bill didn’t fully understand it.
For one thing, Rutherford said, people charged with the “the very same offenses” his bill would expunge can go through a pre-trial intervention process already and get their crimes taken out of the public record.
Also, Rutherford said, expungement and pardon are not automatic. Anyone who got his record expunged under the bill would have to be investigated and would only then receive a pardon from the S.C. Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services.
Then they would have to apply to get their record expunged, he said, and the solicitor involved could oppose the application.
“At every point in that process, law enforcement and the victim could oppose the pardon and expungement,” Rutherford said.
Since it’s difficult for people with even minor criminal records to find good work, the implications of defeating his bill are horrendous, Rutherford said.
“They are creating a permanent underclass of people who cannot find jobs,” he said.
In her veto message Monday, Gov. Nikki Haley called Rutherford’s bill overly broad.
“As the bill stands, persons convicted of crimes like hit-and-run, child abandonment and dealing drugs would have the opportunity to erase their criminal records,” Haley wrote in her veto message.
Haley also said she was willing to work with Rutherford to craft a narrower bill that would improve “employment opportunities for pardoned individuals without compromising the safety of our communities.”
David Pascoe, solicitor of the 1st Judicial Circuit in Orangeburg and president of the S.C. Solicitors’ Association, wrote a letter to Haley, asking that the bill be vetoed because it was “overly broad.”
Laura Hudson, executive director of the S.C. Crime Victims’ Council, said her association opposed the bill.
“This could pose a danger to those hiring people to take care of children and vulnerable adults,” Hudson said. “It also undermines the entire criminal justice record-keeping system.”
Former SLED agent Tallon said he told lawmakers Tuesday that such a broad censorship of public criminal records was not appropriate in a democratic society.
“There are things out there the public needs to know, he said.”
Tallon said the bill also failed to list the specific crimes for which a record could be expunged. Instead, the bill referred obliquely to other sections of the criminal law to define those crimes.
Rutherford said he would re-introduce the bill next year. A main reason for the defeat, he said, was Keel’s last-minute lobbying: “People didn’t want to go against the director of SLED.”
Rutherford said, “The Christian way of thinking is to give people a second chance.”
Keel’s reply: “Pardon has always been about forgiveness – not forgetfulness. If you forgive somebody, you restore their rights, but it’s still on their record.”