South Carolina bill would expand price-gouging protections

| Tuesday, January 24, 2006

An effort to make it easier to investigate allegations of fuel price gouging is under review in South Carolina.

Sponsored by House Speaker Bobby Harrell, the bill would allow authorities to look into possible gouging if an emergency is declared in another state affecting the price of goods in South Carolina. Currently, officials may not investigate such allegations as a criminal matter unless South Carolina itself is declared in a state of emergency.

“We learned after Hurricane Katrina that we have a weakness in our law,” Harrell, R-Charleston, told The State newspaper.

In the days following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, South Carolina Attorney General Henry McMaster received more than 1,550 complaints of price gouging, which state law defines as using an emergency to charge “unconscionable” prices far above anything that can be justified by supply and demand.

A handful of civil investigations were opened. If a state of emergency had been declared in South Carolina, those fuel retailers might have faced criminal investigations, McMaster said.

The measure would not change current misdemeanor criminal penalties of up to a $1,000 fine and/or 30 days in jail, per occurrence.

The National Conference of State Legislatures reports 27 states have some type of price-gouging ban with many others pursuing their own rules. The laws in many of those states are triggered by emergency declarations.

Harrell’s bill – H4316 – is in the House Labor, Commerce and Industry Committee.

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