There’s a bill in the South Carolina state legislature right now that would ban sagging pants. Seriously, as local news outlet WLTX reports, should the law pass, it would be illegal to let your pants ride too low:
House Bill 4957 would make it illegal for a person to expose their skin or underwear by wearing their pants “three inches below the crest of his ileum” —the top of the hips.
Violation fines equal just enough to buy that much needed belt: $25 for a first offense; $50 or three hours of community service for a second offense; and $75 or six hours of community service for a third or subsequent offense.
The bill originally had 10 bipartisan sponsors who got it all the way to the judiciary committee. Now, as the proposal is subject to skewering in the press and uproar among the public, about half of the lawmakers have asked that their names be taken off the bill. That suggests it won’t pass, and it shouldn’t.
Let’s be honest about the purpose of this bill. It’s not about public decency. It’s not about morality. It’s about giving state and local governments another way to police for profit and giving police officers a pretext to stop and harass people — especially young black men — who aren’t visibly doing anything wrong.
You can tell what’s going on here for two reasons. First, this is ridiculous; and everyone knows it’s ridiculous; and everyone equally knows it’s none of the government’s business how you want to wear your pants. (Honestly, I thought we got this sort of ban out of our system in, like, 1999.)
The second reason is how the ban and the punishments are structured. The bill is written specifically so the consequences will be too small to muster enough outrage to get rid of the law should it pass. “Violations wouldn’t be considered criminal or delinquent, or put state college or university financial assistance at risk,” WLTX reports. And then there’s the fines: They’re high enough that enforcement on a statewide scale would function as a nice source of government revenue but low enough to convince those unaffected by the ban that this isn’t a big deal.
But this is a big deal. It’s a big deal because, for some, $25 or $75 is money that can’t be spared on a needless fine. And it’s a big deal because there’s no way the fines will be the only consequence of such a ban.
The Supreme Court’s 2014 ruling in Heien v. North Carolina said if police stop someone without a legal cause, they can still use whatever evidence they discover to charge the person with crimes completely unrelated to the original stop. All the cops have to do is provide a reasonable explanation for how they misunderstood the law for the initial encounter.
“The law already allowed police to make stops on pretext — that is, to pull someone over for some minor infraction in order to investigate more serious wrongdoing,” explains Ken Armstrong at The Marshall Project. ” … Now, with the Heien decision, police could also be wrong about the law.”
You can see where this is going with the sagging pants ban. Whether the pants are actually in violation or not, a police officer who wanted to make a pretext stop could easily say they thought someone’s pants looked too low, and that perception would be enough to legally justify the stop, even if every other part of the person’s behavior was totally normal and legal.
That’s not okay, and it’s why this bill deserves to die in committee.