Is It a Crime to Wear Baggy Pants?

Eight states are weighing bans, citing a correlation between saggy pants, crime.

January 8, 2009, 1:06 AM

— -- When the Virginia House of Representatives tried to outlaw the wearing of low-slung pants two years ago, they drew ridicule from Sydney to London. Comedians joked about a "boxers' rebellion," and so many online political blogs derided the bill that the state Senate quickly killed it.

The mockery in Richmond, however, hasn't stopped other politicians from trying to stamp out sagging pants. Bans have become law or are being considered in at least eight states. The movement is fueled by growing worries among lawmakers that sloppy dress by America's youth could be related, no matter how indirectly, to delinquency, poor learning and crime.

"If we have kids going around wearing pants below their butts, it's not nice, not decent," says Timothy Holmes, a city commissioner in Opa-locka, Fla. "If you ask six of these kids, 'What are your grades?' four will tell you they're making C's, D's and F's. I see how senior citizens respond to these kids. They're afraid."

Opa-locka, a Miami suburb of 15,000 that has struggled to curb violent crime, is the latest municipality to take up sagging pants. Holmes has proposed an ordinance that would ban wearing them in city parks, the library and other municipal buildings. The proposal, which will be voted on Oct. 24, carries no fines or jail time, although violators would be evicted from city property. Holmes says he expects the measure to pass.

Low-slung pants, which droop below the hips and expose underwear and more, are the latest in generations of adolescent fashion statements to rankle adults. Just as miniskirts in the 1960s prompted unsuccessful civic efforts to cover up exposed legs, civil libertarians warn that banning sagging pants will be exceedingly difficult to defend in court.

"Wearing of clothing is absolutely free expression" protected by the First Amendment, says Marjorie Esman, executive director of the Louisiana chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

That prospect hasn't deterred officials from Texas to Connecticut from trying to pass new indecency statutes. Among their efforts:

•New bans have been adopted in Hawkinsville, Ga., and six Louisiana cities and parishes, including Shreveport and Alexandria.

•Proposed bans are under consideration in Trenton and Pleasantville, N.J.; Charlotte; Dallas; Baltimore; Atlanta and three other Georgia towns including Rome, Brunswick and Plains; Duncan, Okla.; and Yonkers, N.Y.

•Bans have been rejected in Natchitoches, La.; Stratford, Conn.; and Pine Bluff, Ark.

Penalties range from fines or jail time to warnings. Several towns in Louisiana, including Mansfield, near Shreveport, passed measures in June that include fines of $150 or 15 days in jail. The Dallas city council is considering a non-binding resolution against sagging pants.

"Their intent is to show that they're looking to maintain or restore order," says David Bositis, a senior political analyst for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington, D.C., think tank that focuses on issues related to black Americans.

The low-slung style was inspired by the beltless pants worn by prison inmates. It spread through the hip-hop music community to urban neighborhoods and then to the suburbs. The style is predominantly worn by black youth, according to Bositis.

"These types of ordinances are obviously aimed at African-American male youth," says Holly Dickson, staff attorney for the ACLU in Arkansas, who warns attempts to enforce them could bring court challenges over racial profiling.

In several cities with large black populations, black leaders are pushing the measures. In Atlanta, City Councilman C.T. Martin says he's trying to raise standards and instill values in today's youth.

"Bill Cosby started this conversation, and we let him down," Martin says, referring to the comedian's controversial criticism of the parenting skills, grammar and values of poor blacks.

Martin says his proposed ordinance has drawn 2 million visitors to his website, where he says an online survey shows 9-to-1 favor it. A task force is examining the issue, with a hearing to follow later this fall.

In Pine Bluff, another black leader, Mayor Carl Redus, spoke at a public hearing two weeks ago and persuaded the city council to kill plans for a no-sagging ordinance. He didn't want to spend taxpayer dollars defending the ordinance in court, and warned that police time shouldn't be tied up in writing tickets for baggy pants.

"We must put forth legislation that works to the good of all," Redus says. "We're not the parents of this community."

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