There’s a constitutional battle raging in America. It’s over saggy pants.
Police Chief David Dicks of Flint, Mich., has declared war against the saggy pants, also known to crime cognoscenti as sagging pants or baggy pants. In June, he announced his police force would arrest people whose saggy pants exposed “skivvies, boxer shorts, or bare bottoms.” Not just tickets — arrests.
Dicks knows a lot about crime. Under his stewardship, Flint has bucked the national downward trend of crime in the U.S. and is now the fourth most dangerous city in America. In any given year, one in 10 people in Flint are a victim of crime. Rapes are committed at four times the national average, murder nearly seven times the national average. Perhaps that’s why Dicks had decided to target delinquent derrières. “We’re not going to sit here and let that happen in Flint.” A man has to draw the line somewhere.
It’s not just Dicks who has become a tush trooper. Riviera Beach, Fla., was the first city to give saggy pants wearers the bum’s rush. Riviera Beach isn’t big enough to have a ranking on America’s most dangerous cities list, but if it was, it would give Flint a run for its money. Burglaries and murders happen at a rate four times the national average.
Riviera Beach doesn’t have the same precise legal test that Flint does. Its legal scholars have kept it flexible for police to use their own good judgment. Anyone whose pants are low enough that “skin or underwear” can be seen is now a perp — a standard that has caused nervousness in middle age men who occasionally bend down to fix things under the sink.
Eleven bare-bottomed bandits have been arrested there so far. A first offence garners a $150 fine, but repeat offenders face up to 60 days in jail. Recently, a 17-year-old was held overnight without a bond because of his saggy pants. He sued Riviera City, claiming the ordinance was unconstitutional.
In a much-anticipated ruling in September, Palm Beach Circuit Judge Paul Moyle added to the jurisprudence on the matter. “We’re not talking about exposure of buttocks. No!” he exclaimed. “We’re talking about someone who has on pants whose underwear are apparently visible.” King Solomon himself could not have made such a thoughtful distinction between legal and illegal pants-sagging.
But while Judge Moyle is clearly a soft-on-crime liberal reformer, 5,000 citizens are made of sterner stuff. That’s how many people signed a petition demanding that city council take saggy pants action in the first place. Dicks couldn’t agree more. “It’s a national nuisance.” His town isn’t going the namby-pamby route of Riviera City. In Flint, exposed undies face $500 fines, and up to 93 days in jail.
Chief Dicks — who is black — bristles at accusations that the saggy pants law is targeted at black youth. “This is not a black issue. This is an issue that’s all walks of life. Many people from different ethnic backgrounds and races are doing this fad.” I’m not so sure. The trend among senior citizens seems to be the opposite — pulling pants much higher. Uncomfortably high, legal and fashion scholars could argue.
But the chief’s critics have a point: If Britney Spears can appear on MTV in very-low-riding jeans, why can’t someone on the streets of Flint, too?
Kokoamos bar in Virginia Beach showed the peril of panty preferences. A recent undercover investigation by WAVY-TV showed two baggy-panted patrons trying to enter the bar — the Caucasian was let in, but the black wasn’t. Besides being the butt of a lot of jokes, what’s this really about?
The chief might say he’s applying economist James Q. Wilson’s “broken windows” theory. That is, if you allow petty crimes to go unchecked, you send a message that the community tolerates lawlessness. It’s the theory Rudy Giuliani used to clean up New York. But Giuliani focused on breaches of existing laws from graffiti to petty thefts. He didn’t invent new, fake problems that he could solve to declare an easy victory.
Baggy pants are more than a fashion statement. They’re a statement of rebellion — the same as mohawk hairdos were for an earlier generation, or listening to Elvis was for another. But being a teenager isn’t a crime — murder, rape, and robbery are crimes. Chief Dicks should focus on those — and leave disciplining teenagers to parents, and dress codes to teachers.
Ezra Levant is a Calgary lawyer. He can be reached at email@example.com