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A New Look for Racial Profiling: Saggy Pants Legislation

Marjorie R. Esman, Special to the Informer from New America Media | 8/14/2013, 3 p.m.
Saggy-pants laws violate a ba­sic First Amendment right to free speech and the liberty interest in expression.

Saggers are everywhere, from London to Paris, Barcelona to Port Au Prince, New Orleans to Steubenville, Ohio, and even Terrebonne Parish. Saggers are people, mostly young men who choose to wear their trousers particularly low on the hips, usually exposing about three to five inches of boxer shorts. While donning saggy pants isn’t exclusive to the United States, it is widely accepted that the “fashion” phenomenon was incubated in America’s prisons. But many local officials in cities across the U.S. don’t consider it fashion at all and have had enough of the trend that some call ridiculous and thuggish.

Others go further calling it indecent or even immoral. An official with the Black Mental Health Alliance of Massachusetts (BMHAM), a group that promotes parity in mental health services, thinks that wearing your jeans below your waist is a “behavioral health issue in our neighborhoods and communities that must be addressed.” And still others claim health reasons for banning saggy pants, citing potential future problems with hips and joints because of the “penguin” type walk saggers adopt in order to keep their pants up.

Fed up, cities from Cocoa Beach, Florida and Lynwood, Illinois to Boston, New York, Shreveport, and other communities around Louisiana are telling saggers to pull their pants up or face fines, community service and even prison time. The terms of the laws vary – some ban showing any underwear at all, some ban pants below the waist, some measure the number of inches that may show before violating the law. And the legal bases for the prohibitions aren’t clear, usually couched in terms of “obscenity” or “indecency,” although Louisiana law prohibits local communities from regulating obscenity more strictly than state law which defines obscenity in terms of the exposure of specific body parts. Underwear isn’t included in that list. Regardless of the justification, the result is the same: law enforcement professionals, in effect, become “fashion police” when their duties include monitoring clothing styles. This seems an inefficient use of their time, not to mention the cost, both which could be better spent managing more serious and violent crime and issues of real public safety.

Saggy-Pants Laws Target Minorities

Saggy-pants laws violate a ba­sic First Amendment right to free speech and the liberty interest in expression. Clothing style is one of the most personal forms of expression. An individual’s liberty interest is a basic right that falls under the same category as the other liberties guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution. Like stop and frisk and other so-called crime-fighting initiatives, saggy-pants laws invite trouble. Based on “a look,” police target certain communities, usually the Afri­can-American community, even though people of all races wear pants that might fall under the legal prohibitions. This racially based profiling leads to a disproportionate number of African Americans being stopped and searched unnecessarily, which in turn leads to unnecessary arrests for questionable minor offenses. The fact is that no link has been found between wearing saggy pants and increased crime or threat to public safety—but clothing has become a pretext to stop and search people for other things.