Too-Saggy Pants Banned in Louisiana, Prompts Fears of Racial Profiling

Pants on the ground? Better pull ’em up fast if you’re in Louisiana’s Terrebonne Parish, where a new law bans the low-slung, undies-exposing jeans look popularized by hip-hop culture.

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The ban, approved Wednesday and expected to be signed into law this week, targets the public wearing of pants—and, oddly, skirts—that hang “below the waist” and “expose the skin or undergarments.” Violators will be slapped with fines: $50 for the first offense, $100 for the second, and $100 plus 16 hours of public service for each subsequent offense.

“Hopefully, it’ll get these young men to pull up their pants,” council member Russell Hornsby told Yahoo! Shine.

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Hornsby’s colleague John Navy proposed the ordinance, and explained to Yahoo! Shine that many constituents had called upon the council to do something about what has apparently become a widespread saggy pants problem. The ban was approved at an April 10th Parish council meeting by a vote of 8-1 and is expected to soon be signed into law by council president Michel Claudet.

Navy, though, said he did not know why the approved law said “below the waist,” and seemed confused by that wording when asked about it. “My understanding was that it was below the butt. I need to look at that again,” he said. “If it’s below your butt and underwear is showing, that’s not proper.”

The only council member to vote against the ban was Beryl Amedée, who told Yahoo! Shine, “I’m absolutely not a fan of this style. However, I don’t think the government should legislate style.”

But, Hornsby added, “The problem is our young men are emulating prisoners. It sends a sign that you’re available for sex. It’s a bad example to set.”

The idea that wearing low-slung pants in prison signals some sort of sexual come-on has been a long-held, generally disputed belief about the controversial style’s origins. Another theory is that folks who let their pants sag below their undies are emulating prisoners who have their belts taken away (for fears of suicide) when they are locked up.

Whatever the inspiration, Terrebonne Parish is not the first municipality to be offended enough by the style to take action. Nearby Shreveport, LA, banned the look, as did Lynwood and Colinsville, Illinois; Cocoa, Florida, which later repealed the law; and Albany, Georgia, which raked in about $4,000 in fines in 2011 alone. Groups in New York City and Boston have run ad campaigns against too-saggy pants.

But the ACLU says that such laws violate the constitution.

“You shouldn’t really have fashion police, as the way you dress is a form of expression that’s protected by the First Amendment,” ACLU lawyer Gabe Rottman told Yahoo! Shine. “These laws target primarily urban youth, African-American youth, and can be used selectively by law enforcement as a means of racial profiling. It’s similar to the outcry over zoot suits in the 1930s.”

A letter from the ACLU’s Louisiana chapter to the Terrebonne council told its members, “The proposed ordinance as described would also be unconstitutionally vague and overbroad. It allows no accidental slippage. It allows no one to inadvertently have underwear peek out while bending over. It makes no concessions for the stereotype of ‘plumber’s’ or ‘carpenter’s crack.’ It makes a criminal of everyone whose pants are not high enough to suit the arbitrary standards of law enforcement.”

In addition, it read, “To ban a particular clothing style would violate a liberty interest guaranteed under the 14th Amendment. The government does not belong in the business of telling people what to wear. Nor does it have the right to use clothing as a pretext to engage in otherwise unlawful stops of innocent people.”

But Navy—who points out that the local chapter of the NAACP has publicly supported the ban—said he is not targeting any specific group of people. “I am an African-American,” he told Yahoo! Shine. “I know I’m not racial profiling.” Terrebonne Parish, according to 2012 Census stats, has a population of 111,900 that’s 72 percent white and 19 percent black. 

Hornsby added that he was personally torn about how to vote, and that he would like to reevaluate the effects of the law in a year to see if it’s doing any good. “I was skeptical, and had a lot of sleepless nights,” he said. “It may be against the constitution but if we can turn around a couple of young men it would be worth it.”

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