County to add final touches to firearm discharge limits

By: By Beth Lawrence - Staff reporter

LAURINBURG — Sheriff Ralph Kersey and the Scotland County Board of Commissioners revisited two issues of importance to the office’s ability to fight crime.

Kersey and the commissioners discussed the latest revisions to a proposed gun ordinance.

Kersey first broached the idea of a firearms ordinance at the board’s January meeting. He asked the board to consider a law restricting how and when guns can be fired in the county because a few residents in the county were using their weapons recklessly and endangering the lives and property of neighbors.

The board has worked with the policy committee, Kersey and County Attorney, Ed Johnston on several drafts of the proposed law making an attempt to give Kersey the authority to handle situations where residents fail to use their weapons in a safe manner and refuse to cooperate with law enforcement intervention.

The latest version states that weapons shall not be discharged within 200 feet of a dwelling in a manner that “carelessly or heedlessly in wanton disregard for the safety of others without due caution to endanger another person or property damage, having consumed alcohol or other impairing substance, discharging a firearm on property without permission, having a projectile leave the property from which it is fired, discharge a firearm before sunrise or after sunset.”

The two concerns that were discussed by the board Monday were that impairment was not defined nor was there any language defining a berm or backstop which had been discussed at previous meetings.

Johnston told the board that the standard definition for intoxication would apply to the ordinance and that the language requiring that the bullet not leave the property on which it was fired covered the need to define a berm.

There was also some attempt to assuage residents’ concerns that that they would not be able to use their legally owned firearms on their own property.

Commissioner Carol McCall had one solution to the issue.

“I think that perception is very powerful and you [Kersey] just made the comment that people will perceive that it’s not about safety, that it’s about taking guns away, and what I’m reading here …what’s up there says firearms safety ordinance,” McColl said. “I would recommend that we include the words firearms discharge safety ordinance to be really clear that this is more about discharging a firearm than it is about the possession of a firearm.”

Johnston and Kersey will review the ordinance one last time and the board will set a date for the final public hearing.

The board also circled back to the issue of evidence storage.

In September, Chief Deputy Lloyd Goins also told the board that the sheriff’s office had evidence stored in several places across the county and that the sheriff’s office had reached out to Lee Howell, owner of Scotland Motors, to lease a building for the purpose.

One issue facing the sheriff’s office is the fact that cars used in crime are often stored outdoor in a fenced area at the courthouse.

“The district attorney has a policy here that if a vehicle is used in a homicide that evidence will be held for life, unless she decides differently,” Kersey said. “I noticed right after coming into office that these items were being stored outside in that enclosed fence. It’s never made sense to me that if something is that important to a case that we leave it out in the weather for all these years. So over the last year we have been using Lee Howell’s facility on Lees Mill Road. We have right at 15 vehicles in there now… that we have actually seized over the last three and a half years.”

The issue with storing seized property outside is that over time the elements often degrade evidence like DNA or gunshot residue and other proof that might be used to clear or convict a suspect.

Kersey told the board that he still wanted to find a way to store the evidence inside whether at Howell’s building or another.

During the September discussion, a suggestion was made by Commissioner Clarence McPhatter to use the old gym at the former Gibson High School.

County Manager Kevin Patterson said that the gym was not an option because the floors were not strong enough and would have to be replaced with a concrete slab. There is also no ramp to get the cars inside the facility and the roof leaks.

Kersey also told the board that the county and some residents were paying storage fees to wrecker yards for impounded cars.

“If right at this moment we have a vehicle seized, and we have nowhere to put it; then, the wrecker driver is holding the vehicle for us which is not only a wrecker fee, but $35 a day,” Kersey said.

He said the $35 compounds over time and people lose their vehicles because they cannot pay the fees.

Kersey would like to incorporate a way to store the impounded cars and help pay for the cost of and evidence storage.

“I could use that [fenced area] at the office and store mopeds and ATVs and vehicles that the owners will be picking up; instead of it being a $35 dollar fee we could charge a whole lot lower fee, but use those funds to pay for the building on Lees Mill Road or wherever,” he said.

Chair Whit Gibson inquired as to how much the Sheriff’s Office was paying Howell and was told that Howell was not currently charging the county.

“He has not been paid. He allowed us to store vehicles in there right at a year ago, and he has not contacted me, but I don’t think that it is fair to continue to use that facility and he not be compensated,” Kersey said.

Kersey and Howell settled on a rental rate of $550 a month or $6,600 a year.

A security system would also have to be installed at any facility the county settles on. Kersey estimated the cost of instillation at $1,900 and a monthly monitoring fee of $35.

McPhatter reiterated his point from September.

“I don’t think the county should bear the expense when we have county property,” he said. “I just can’t see us paying six or $7,000 a year for life.”

The board tabled the discussion until its next budget planning session to look at available options and how to finance storage and bring it before the board in June.

The sheriff also asked that the county allow him to look into raising money to purchase an abandoned building on Old Lumberton Road that has a tax lien of $2,147. The building is a former VFW, church, and belongs to Scotland County Law Enforcement Association.

Kersey hopes to be able to use the building as a facility for training, a small firing range, combat courses and possibly another place to secure evidence or impounded vehicles.

Johnston will complete a title search and the board will discuss whether or not to let the tax foreclosure proceed and then give the building to the sheriff’s office.

The next budget meeting is at the Emergency Operations Center on West Boulevard on May 23 at 9 a.m.

By Beth Lawrence

Staff reporter

Reach Beth Lawrence 910-506-3169

Reach Beth Lawrence 910-506-3169