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South Carolina bill seeks to ban felons from being sheriffs

March 2, 2019
FILE - In this Aug. 6, 2012, file photo, former Saluda County Sheriff Jason Booth, left, tells the people of his county he is sorry as Judge Doyet "Jack" Early III, seated at upper right, listens during Booth's guilty plea to a misconduct in office charge at the Aiken County Courthouse in Aiken, S.C. A bill in the South Carolina General Assembly would prevent any law officer convicted of a felony or a crime involving using a public office for a personal gain from being eligible to run for sheriff of a county. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins, File)

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — In a state where eight county sheriffs have been convicted of crimes in office over the past decade, South Carolina lawmakers want to tighten the qualifications to be a top law enforcement official.

The bill , with similar versions introduced in both the House and Senate would bar someone from running for sheriff in any of the state’s 46 counties if they have been convicted, pleaded guilty to, or been pardoned of a felony or “a crime of moral turpitude” in South Carolina or any other state.

There was already a law in place to keep most felons from getting the sheriff’s badge. Sheriffs must be certified law officers, and a felony conviction usually means the end of an officer’s certification.

The “moral turpitude” clause is being added so sheriffs and other who admit to misdemeanors that include violating the social duties a man owes to society — defined at times by the court to include using a public office for personal gain — can’t return to that high law enforcement office, supporters of the bill say.

“A sheriff needs to be held to the highest standards. If you have been convicted of a crime, how could the public have any confidence in your ability to uphold the law fairly for them?” said Rep. Bruce Bryant, a Republican from York and the only sheriff in the House - having been the top lawman in York County from 1997 to 2017.

Sponsors of the bill said they have no specific person or scenario in mind, but in 2016, Jason Booth ran for the Republican nomination for sheriff in Saluda County four years after he pleaded guilty to misconduct in office, a misdemeanor, and was fined $900 for using inmate labor to build a party shed and do other improvements to his home. Booth gave that inmate unsupervised visits with a girlfriend who ended up getting pregnant.

Booth got 31 percent of the vote in the primary.

The bill also aims to clarify another qualification issue that came up in 2016 after a Democratic candidate for sheriff in McCormick County sued after losing to Republican, saying Clarke Stearns wasn’t qualified to be sheriff because he didn’t have three years of law enforcement experience in South Carolina.

Sterns, who decided to run for sheriff after retiring to the state for a few years, successfully argued before the state Supreme Court that he had 31 years of law enforcement experience in Virginia and the law didn’t specify which state.

The bill requires a sheriff to have a law enforcement certification in South Carolina, which an out-of-state officer can get by submitting his resume and experience to the state Criminal Justice Academy.