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Realtors call for background checks

COLUMBIA - Prospective property buyers should not have to worry about going alone into a vacant building with a stranger, members of the S.C. Association of Realtors say.

The association's top legislative priority for this year is requiring criminal background checks for real estate licensees, and on Thursday a House subcommittee agreed to a bill that does that.

People with certain offenses on their record could be denied a license, though they can appeal.

"We feel that this is a way to improve our industry and improve our service to the public," said Cashion Didier, the association's lobbyist.

The group's 21,000 members "overwhelmingly support the bill," she said.

"There's a movement toward this," said Rep. Chip Huggins, R-Columbia, chairman of the Real Estate Subcommittee of the Labor, Commerce and Industry Committee. He is a sponsor of the bill and is a Realtor.

He said some real estate companies and multiple listing services already require criminal background checks for members and employees.

The main concern is sexual offenders and sexual predators, Huggins said.

Rep. Jimmy Bales, D-Eastover, said he did not want to see people frozen out of real estate careers because of youthful indiscretions or if they had been reformed. Some offenses should be forgiven, he said.

"We got a lot of religious folks up here; they'll pray for you, but they don't forgive," Bales said.

"We do think crimes of moral turpitude should bar you from getting a license," Didier said.

State law defines crimes of moral turpitude and they include most felonies, bribery, fraud, child molestation, rape and other sexual offenses.

Rep. David Mack, D-North Charleston, said that as a black man he is sensitive to the issue of how criminal records can prevent people from improving their lives, but that "the crimes are of such a nature that I'm comfortable with it."

Mack said he pictured his daughter going to look at a vacant house at night with a strange man and saw that the law is needed.

The bill now goes to the full committee.

Huggins said the House passed a similar bill last year but that it died in the Senate.