S.C. senators pass bill to criminalize fentanyl trafficking, adding on illegal gun penalties

Published: May. 29, 2023 at 6:20 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - Right now, there is no law on the books in South Carolina that criminalizes the trafficking of fentanyl.

The push to establish one is closer than it has ever been, but questions remain about how quickly lawmakers can get it done.

Last week, senators unanimously passed H.3503, the House version of a bill to criminalize fentanyl trafficking.

People convicted of trafficking the drug would face at least seven years in prison and up to 40 years behind bars, depending on the amount of fentanyl they had and if they had a previous trafficking conviction in their criminal record.

Getting this bill to the governor has been a top public safety priority for State House leaders this year, but the House and Senate had, until this point, passed separate pieces of legislation, necessitating one eventually take up the other’s bill.

In passing the House bill, senators also added a penalty enhancement for people convicted of trafficking fentanyl if they were also caught with a gun on them. They would face up to five additional years in prison and a $2,000 fine and would no longer be able to own a firearm.

“If they are convicted of this crime, what is wrong with making them lose their right to bear arms?” Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Luke Rankin, R – Horry, said.

Sen. Dick Harpootlian, D – Richland, who has spent decades prosecuting and, presently, defending people charged with crimes said mandatory minimum sentences are typically not effective deterrents for criminals.

But he believes this one would help.

“This will, however, those that we do apprehend, give them an extra five years and deter them from doing it again, and that’s important,” Harpootlian said. “Fentanyl is ravaging, ravaging our community.”

The addition comes after months of urging from Gov. Henry McMaster to increase the penalties for people caught illegally possessing guns, though the governor has called for wider penalty enhancements than those in this bill, which would only apply to certain people convicted of trafficking fentanyl.

“The governor’s office has suggested to us, please give them and give South Carolina law enforcement a tool to go after bad people,” Rankin said.

While the Senate unanimously passed the bill, some senators had concerns that tacking on the gun penalties could hinder the chances for fentanyl trafficking legislation to get to the governor’s desk in 2023.

The new version of the bill will need to get another approval in the House, which passed it earlier this year after an extensive and contested debate, or House members could opt to reject the Senate’s changes and try to work out a compromise.

“The best way to get this bill done this year is to send a clean version to the House without this amendment,” Sen. Greg Hembree, R – Horry, told his colleagues, who opted to add on the gun penalties.

The General Assembly is still in a special session called by the governor, during which it can take any bill up at any point.

But as of Monday, neither chamber had publicly set a date for when its members will next return to resume work in Columbia.

If lawmakers do not get this bill to the governor before they decide to end their special session, they would likely have to wait until next year to finalize it.

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