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In this industry, anyone can get a key to your house. Lawmakers are trying to change that

Know Your Locksmith

Locksmith Pete Bourey of Eastway Lock and Key talks about the need for background checks and registration in SC.
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Locksmith Pete Bourey of Eastway Lock and Key talks about the need for background checks and registration in SC.

A bill designed by local lawmakers to license locksmiths in South Carolina and keep key making out of the wrong hands unanimously passed in the House of Representatives recently and is currently moving through the Senate.

The bill’s primary writer, Rep. Greg Duckworth of North Myrtle Beach, has been championing for it ever since its creation last year, prompted by the arrest of a former North Myrtle Beach locksmith and convicted sex offender, Panteleimon “Peter” Spirakis, who once operated the now-shuttered Phil’s Lock and Key.

Local lawmakers said last year that Spirakis’ arrest in connection with sex crimes against two 4-year-old children and the fact that he was a convicted sex offender prior to the arrest highlighted a need for state locksmiths to be licensed, along with the construction of regulations for the industry, including a national criminal background check. Spirakis remains jailed while awaiting trial and has a bond hearing scheduled for May 11 in general sessions court.

Lawmakers filed the bill during the 11th hour last year, but were glad they got it introduced before a deadline shut the door on any new bill proposals. The bill expired in a sub-committee last term before it could gain much traction, but Duckworth said the extra time was a good a thing because it would allow them to work closely with locksmiths to make amendments to the bill.

“We just didn’t have enough time, that was the reality of it,” said Duckworth about last term. “But this year luckily we had the appropriate amount of time to do the appropriate due diligence and communication with the right people to get a bill passed through the House, and hopefully we’ll see the same happen on the Senate side.”

The bill’s path

The bill was read in the Senate on Tuesday and moved into a sub-committee of the Senate Labor, Commerce, and Industry Committee. Its path through the Senate will mirror the one it traveled through the House, but different players are involved, according to lawmakers.

State Sen. Greg Hembree of Horry County told The Sun News last year when the bill was crafted that he planned to champion for it on the Senate side, and he recently echoed that he would now that the bill made it in just in the nick of time before the April 10 crossover deadline came, which would have barred its entry into the Senate this legislative term.

While Hembree plans to rally for the bill, he said its chances of making it through the Senate this year are slim, because the sands of time are running out this legislative term, which ends May 11.

“I think it’s good policy and it’s needed,” he said of the bill. “It’s a good idea for starters, and that’s one of the important parts, so I think that tilts in its favor. I think from a timing standpoint, I’m not sure we’ll get it all the way through the process on our side this year, because our session is coming ever so quickly to an end.

Hembree said while its chances of blitzing through the Senate and landing in the law books looks bleak this legislative season, his hopes are high for early next year.

If time runs out on the bill this term, Hembree said that in January 2018 when the next session begins, the bill would pick up right where it left off and hopefully continue its trek through the Senate.

Nearly 20 years in the making

South Carolina isn’t the only state that doesn’t demand its locksmiths are licensed the way other professions, such as real estate agents, cosmetologists and others, are. Many others don’t, according to the Associated Locksmiths of America website, which lists the ones that do.

Jeff Owens, president of the S.C. Locksmith Association, said his organization has been trying for nearly 20 years to get a law requiring locksmith licensing and regulations for the industry in the Palmetto State on the books. He said the state locksmith association has posed bills before, but none have ever made it through the House of Representatives, and he was pleased with this bill’s progress.

“That’s good news that it went that far, and we’ll see what happens,” Owens said. “I think it’s a good start. I think once it gets in place, if that’s what happens, that it will be good for the community – the locksmith community and the general public, because most people just assume that we’re licensed.”

Lee Griggs, 84, a retired locksmith and lifetime member of the S.C. Locksmith Association, said he thought a speech he delivered helped lift the bill from the depths of the sub-committee, where its died so many times before, and propelled it forward.

“I was allowed to speak, and I kind of shook them up a little bit,” he said of his moment at a House sub-committee meeting last month.

He said he first painted a pleasant picture of a locksmith who provided their service and left customers happy and after pausing for dramatic effect next he said he told them: “I woke you up at 3 this morning with my gun against your head. I didn’t kick your front door in. I didn’t need to. I had a key to your house. I kept one when I re-keyed your front door and now you and your family are dead.”

He said the mood in the room changed when he gave his bone-chilling, second-person-toned speech illustrating that a public safety issue was at stake.

After working for about 17 years to get a law passed requiring licensing and banning certain criminal elements, he’s pleased and surprised about the bill’s progress, but said he doesn’t feel hopeful about its future after so much failure in the past.

Duckworth said he thought the fact that people are more aware of public safety issues now could be a reason that may have helped the bill move forward.

He’s been working hand-in-hand and meeting with Owens, Griggs and other locksmiths since last year to ensure they’re happy with the bill he’s been crafting.

“We want it to be a bill that the locksmiths themselves want to see happen,” said Duckworth. “If we’re going to do something, we want it to be something that they embrace as well.”

Owens said he’s glad members of the profession are a part of the process.

“We’re excited about it moving forward, and the good news is we’re supposed to be involved in the whole process as it goes forward, and that’s what we want – to be involved so it benefits us and the public,” he said.

The Bill and what it does

The bill itself bars convicted sex offenders from the industry, requires all locksmiths to obtain a license and requires the passing of a national and state criminal background check, among other guidelines. There also would be penalties for those involved in the practice if they don’t follow the rules.

The bill, which could be amended as it moves through the legislative process, would also prohibit anyone who has previously had a locksmith license revoked for fraud or misrepresentation in any of the 15 states that require locksmith licensing from operating. If the bill goes through, locksmiths would be required to carry a permanent employee registration card.

If the bill is made into law, those seeking a license would be required to apply for one and pay a licensing fee, the amount of which is to be determined.

Duckworth said many locksmiths take it upon themselves to seek out continuing education, as well as do background checks when hiring employees, but there’s nothing in place stopping others with unsavory backgrounds or bad intentions from getting into the industry.

“[The bill] raises the bar, levels the playing field and ensures safety,” said Duckworth. “Safety and public welfare is the whole intent of these types of things through the licensure anyway. It affords a certain level of creditability among all locksmiths, not just the ones that are already trying to do it right and are doing it right, but it would require all to play by the same rules, which is important.”

Aside from the dangers of those with criminal backgrounds, the industry is plagued to some degree with cons commonly known as “scammers,” according to Duckworth and Owens.

These scammers will quote one price over the phone, then charge a much more inflated and unnecessary higher amount in person, they said. Duckworth said he hopes the bill, if passed, could weed out those bad elements as well.

“These criminals are going to go where the sun isn’t shining any more, just like cockroaches – they’re going to go crawling back to some hole somewhere, maybe move to another state where licensing isn’t allowed,” Duckworth said.

Duckworth and Hembree both stressed the importance of locking the wrong people out of the industry.

“[The locksmiths] hold the keys to our most precious treasures … that’s why it’s important, because all the legitimate locksmiths out there are voluntarily doing it right, and voluntarily subjecting themselves to the things this bill advocates for …” Duckworth said.

“I think it gives citizens confidence that the people they’re calling for these services are law-abiding people,” said Sen. Hembree. “It gives the public confidence and prohibits those with criminal records from obtaining the ability to enter in this profession. It raises the professionalism of locksmiths, and I think it prevents those that shouldn’t be in that business. It prevents them from being in that business and getting training so they can use it in nefarious ways.”

Elizabeth Townsend: 843-626-0217, @TSN_etownsend