July 30, 2008

Jasper County Hits the Brakes on Sagging Pants Ban

By Jeremy Hsieh, The Beaufort Gazette, S.C.

Jul. 30--The Jasper County Council's proposed ban of sagging pants could have been on the books as early as Monday, but the chairman put the brakes on the proposal pending further study.

The proposal sailed through its first reading in June, and a combined second reading and public hearing last week, despite dozens of glaring questions about its legality, applicability and enforceability. Three readings and votes are required for an ordinance to be adopted.

The delay follows a meeting Friday among the mayors and police representatives of Ridgeland and Hardeeville, Jasper County Sheriff Gregory Jenkins and County Council members about the proposed ordinance.

Assistant Chief Steven Murphy of the Hardeeville Police Department said the consensus at the meeting was favorable to the concept of the ban, though there were pragmatic concerns about the wording and enforcement.

"We're definitely supportive of it, our only question is application of enforcement of it," Murphy said. "It's a good tool. ... The bottom line is, if someone's wearing baggy clothes, we don't know what they're concealing beneath the baggy clothes."

In that light, the ban isn't about deputizing law enforcement as fashion police, but it could lead to serious arrests dealing with concealed weapons, Murphy said.

The practical concerns stem from the wording of the proposed ordinance, the substance of which is only one sentence:

"It shall be a misdemeanor for any person to appear in public wearing his or her pants more than three (3) inches below his or her hips (crest of ileum) and thereby exposing his or her skin or intimate clothing."

The ordinance calls for a maximum penalty of $500 and 30 days in jail, county attorney Marvin Jones has said.

Opponents of the ban have pointed out potential pitfalls in the wording: Does it apply to swimwear? To people on private property but in public view? To garments besides pants specifically? To people wearing shirts that cover their otherwise exposed waistlines?

At both readings, the council voted it forward 3-2 with Councilmen George Hood, LeRoy Blackshear and Fred Tuten backing it and Gladys Jones (no relation to the attorney) and Hubert Tyler opposing it.

Hood, the council chairman, said he wants the county attorney to come back with an ordinance everyone can buy into. The attorney was instructed to examine other sagging pants laws and legal issues and get back to the council.

Attorney Jones said he didn't know when he'd be finished.

The ordinance may come under scrutiny for criminalizing something state law doesn't recognize as criminal action.

A March decision by the state Supreme Court on local smoking bans quoted a 1996 decision about the Town of Hilton Head Island's attempt to criminalize nude dancing that was found unconstitutional: "Local governments may not criminalize conduct that is legal under a statewide criminal law."

As a result of the recent Supreme Court decision, the Beaufort County Council is in the process of bringing its smoking ban into compliance by stripping away criminal penalties but creating civil penalties such as fines and the threat of business license revocations.


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