Friday, February 5, 2010

Legislature should back off on search, I.D. bills

Something’s fishy in Columbia with two bills that directly impact our constitutional rights.

In one, state lawmakers want to start so-called “warrantless searches” to allow police to search people on parole or probation without the hassle of getting a search warrant.  In another, legislators want to require photo identification for voting, a practice that could dampen turnout among more than 300,000 people who don’t have such identification cards.

In both cases, state legislators want to use the strong arm of the law to impede people’s civil liberties.  What’s fishy is that these efforts are being backed strongly by Republicans, the party that preaches the gospel of limited government.

“When they say they believe in less government, watch what they do, and not what they say,” warns Charleston civil rights lawyer Armand Derfner.

First, let’s look at warrantless searches.

Charleston Mayor Joe Riley, a Democrat, started the push for warrantless searches to help cut down on crime in Charleston.   If police can search any probationer or parolee any time, proponents believe the threat of searches will discourage those folks from returning to a life of crime.

In the original version of the bill, warrantless searches extended to private homes that a probationer or parolee might be in.  In recent days, the House deleted that provision to deal with the very real concern that police would be able to get into anyone’s home without a warrant.  Now the proposal calls for searches in cars or in the public if an officer deems it necessary.

But it’s a slippery slope.  If we allow police searches of parolees and probationers without a warrant, what’s to prevent future proposals to take away more constitutional rights from unreasonable searches and seizures in the future?

“It’s government reaching too far,” said one of the few Republican legislators against the bill.  â€œThey’re finding an end run around the Fourth amendment.

“The problem is it’s not narrowly tailored for what they say the intent is,” said the lawmaker, who asked for anonymity.  â€œThe repercussions are great as it relates to innocent third parties.  Nobody is trying to protect the right of people on parole or probation.  The concern is the impact on third persons who have done nothing wrong.”

State Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, notes the whole idea of warrantless searches is odd since getting a warrant isn’t really that hard if police have a suspicion of wrongdoing.   Rather than mess with constitutional rights, perhaps authorities should better use existing laws, such as setting higher bonds for probationers or parolees who get in trouble, he added.

Next up:  photo identification for voters.

According to the League of Women Voters of South Carolina, there are more than 178,000 registered S.C. voters who don’t have a state-approved photo I.D. or driver’s license.  Requiring those people to get more identification for voting would cost about $1 million and could create longer lines at the polls, the League says.

More importantly, requiring photo IDs is solving a problem that really doesn’t exist.  Derfner said the state already has adequate identification requirements.

“We’ve never had a complaint of that kind of fraud,” he said, later adding that the voter I.D. proposal “is just a fraud because there’s no need for it.  The only reason they want to do it is cut down on voters.”

State League President Barbara Zia said the proposal is something that, if it passed, might be held up by the U.S. Justice Department because of the state’s history of discriminatory voting practices.

“The current bill covers only voter impersonation and the fact is there are no documented cases of such voter fraud in South Carolina,” she said.

What’s interesting about the whole controversy is that just a few years back, Republicans squawked about national identity cards as an intrusion into a person’s privacy.  And while some still are against national IDs nationally, the playing field seemed to change after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Regardless, fiddling with people’s constitutional rights of being able to vote with few barriers and being able to exist without unreasonable searches is dangerous.  State lawmakers need to seriously consider how they are proposing to take away citizen rights before proceeding with either unnecessary bill.

Andy Brack, publisher of Statehouse Report, can be reached at:   brack@statehousereport.com.

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