South Carolina’s new “scarlet letter” law might not be quite the boon to nosy customer service employees as some had feared. At least while the code remains intact.
That means the curious -- and potentially discriminatory -- checkout clerk, bouncer, waiter, or anyone else who checks customers’ driver’s license won’t be able to tell if the man who is purchasing a six-pack of beer has been convicted of rape or other violent crime.
In July a South Carolina law went into effect requiring people with a violent record to bear a special mark on their driver’s license or ID card so that police officers know if they’re apprehending someone with a history of violence.
When asked for a sample copy of the new specially coded cards, a spokeswoman for the S.C. Department of Motor Vehicles pointed to a section of the new law that prohibits the special markings, described in law as a “symbol, number, or letter of the alphabet” from being specified.
“We’ve told law enforcement what it looks like. They know what to look for,” said DMV spokeswoman Beth Parks, adding that disseminating copies of the coded symbol could complicate the targeted population’s everyday interactions, such as shopping in a grocery store.
“You don’t want people staring at them,” she added. “You have to show your license for a lot of different reasons.”
Since 2009, supporters of S. 288 had heralded the effort as one that would make South Carolina the first state in the nation to effectively brand people who have pleaded guilty or no contest or been convicted of a violent crime. A flip of a motorist’s driver’s license would reveal the violent-record mark, alerting police officers to watch their step.
As for whether the new law is already protecting law enforcement officers or harming ex-offenders’ civil liberties, four months appears to be too short a period to judge.
Since July, the DMV has issued 53 of the marked cards. The courts have sent the agency the names of another 1,099 people, who will be required to purchase a coded card for $50.
Both former S.C. State Law Enforcement Division head Robert Stewart, who had championed the bill, and Victoria Middleton, director of the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina, which had opposed it, said Thursday that they had so far not been informed of any immediate effects.
Democrats and then-Republican Gov. Mark Sanford had opposed the effort, warning that it would stigmatize ex-offenders who were trying to start over. They also argued that because police officers approach all stopped motorists with great caution, the coded driver’s license weren’t likely to make police even more wary.
The Republican-led Legislature overrode Sanford’s veto in June of last year. The new law applies to convictions or pleas that occurred on or after July 1 of this year. It also lets individuals apply to have the mark removed under certain conditions.