South Carolina Anti-Terror Bill Broader Than Most
By John Nagy, Staff Writer
Should South Carolina suffer a terrorist threat or attack, the nation may get to evaluate the power of state legislation to protect residents from physical, financial or psychological harm.
Over the weekend, Gov. Jim Hodges (D) plans to sign a bill that will add South Carolina to a handful of states that have taken significant, sweeping action to address terrorism so far this year.
The "Omnibus Terror Protection and Homeland Defense Act of 2002" gives state police broader authority to conduct wiretaps on suspected terrorists. It also authorizes health officials to quarantine infected residents in the event of an attack using biological agents. Merchants raising prices on gasoline, groceries or hotel rooms unreasonably would face legal action.
"It gives law enforcement in South Carolina some real teeth to deal with terrorist acts. I think it moves South Carolina to the front of the class as far as preparedness," the bill's main sponsor, House Speaker David Wilkins (R-Greenville), told Stateline.org.
The wiretapping provision brings South Carolina into line with similar powers held by law enforcement agencies in more than 40 other states, legislative aides said. Police will not be able to use it lightly: A request for a wiretap must come from the chief of the State Law Enforcement Division and get the nod from the state Attorney General and a circuit court judge appointed by the Chief Justice of the state Supreme Court.
Other provisions of the bill include:
- Expansion of state grand jury jurisdiction to include the investigation of terrorism.
- New definitions and penalties for hoaxes, computer crimes, and terrorist activity using biological, chemical or nuclear weapons
- Application of the death penalty when a threat or attack leads to someone's death.
Public records exemptions for security plans and proposals. However, the costs of security equipment, training and programs will still be available to the public.
Because the legislation does not create any new offices or hire additional personnel, Wilkins expects the new law to have "minimal" impact upon the state's strained budget. He says the House got "about 80 percent" of what it had initially put in the bill, but dropped its fight with the Senate over some items, such as tax credits for state and local first responders, in order to ensure passage before session's end on June 6.
Most states have responded in piecemeal fashion to the security challenge posed by the September 11 attacks, the anthrax scare, a rash of hoaxes and the ongoing "elevated" state of alert declared by the White House's Office of Homeland Security.
An April report prepared by the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) found few salient legislative trends, with a handful of states toughening penalties for terrorist activity and strengthening the hand of public health officials to respond to an attack.
According to the StateScape legislative tracking service, 33 states have enacted 151 homeland security bills thus far in 2002.