Friday Follies: Fines and Community Service for Saggy Pants

This past week, the legislature showed an unusually keen interest in how South Carolinians choose to wear their clothes.

H.4957 would make it a civil offense for a person to expose their underwear or skin by wearing his pants more than three inches below his “ileum”. For those unfamiliar with obscure anatomical terms, the ileum (spelled with an “e”) is part of the small intestine, while the Ilium (spelled with an “I”) is the upper part of the hipbone.

It seems lawmakers have confused the two terms, but regardless of the measurement starting-point, the bill prompts numerous concerns and questions.

For instance, actually enforcing this sort of law would be tricky. Let’s say a police officer notices a man whose pants appear to be below the three-inch threshold. Then, before the officer can approach the man to measure where his pants are resting, the man simply pulls them up. At that point, the officer wouldn’t know if his pants had actually been sitting three inches below his hips or not. Are these really the kind of issues we want police officers to spend time on?

The penalties for sagging pants would include fines up to $75 and mandatory community service hours – and that doesn’t include any additional court costs and surcharges.

Moreover, these “crimes” are not the kind of matters that should be consuming limited court resources. Under this bill, hearings for these violations would be held by municipal and magistrate courts and placed on their traffic violations docket, greatly increasing traffic court congestion. In 2016, South Carolina heard almost 900,000 traffic violations, and such violations account for over half of all incoming court cases at the national level.

Lawmakers supporting the bill have faced strong criticism in light of their proposal, and some have even removed themselves from the bill’s list of co-sponsors. They claimed their intent was to “start a conversation” to help young people and that it’s their responsibility as state leaders to “guide them in the right direction”.

There are two serious problems with that line of thinking. The first being that it our legislators seem to think it’s their job to tell South Carolinians how to dress. Guiding our youth on how to conduct themselves is the role of parents, teachers, community members and the like. Policies targeted at penalizing young men for their dress will not drive home the ideas of decency and virtue, but will instead harass and burden them unnecessarily – and perhaps even breed resentment.

Second, and most importantly, using proposed legislation to make a statement rather than implement a policy change is a completely inappropriate use of legislative power. Every bill filed by the General Assembly has the potential to become law and each bill should be treated as such. When legislators use bills as tools to stir up a reaction rather than to create policy changes, they fail to acknowledge the serious implications that laws carry, especially when those laws include fines and mandatory unpaid labor. Unfortunately, lawmakers have an ugly history of doing just that.

As of now, the bill appears to be sagging behind and losing steam. Considering just how ridiculous this bill is, that’s a trend we hope continues.

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