Tuesday, February 8, 2005

RICHMOND — Virginia lawmakers to the state’s youth: Pull up your pants or pay the price.

Delegate Algie T. Howell Jr. doesn’t want to see underwear hanging out of the back of your pants, and most lawmakers yesterday agreed with him. The House voted 60-34 for his bill, which would impose a $50 fine on anyone whose boxers, briefs or thongs peek above their pants or skirts.

“It’s not an attack on baggy pants,” said Mr. Howell, Norfolk Democrat. “To vote for this bill would be a vote for character, to uplift your community and to do something good not only for the state of Virginia, but for this entire country.”

It’s not clear if the fine would apply to plumbers, carpenters or other laborers who have problems with low-riding pants. The bill states the fine would apply to those who display their below-the-waist underwear in a “lewd or indecent manner.”

Several lawmakers and civil rights groups said the legislation — sometimes referred to as the “droopy drawers” bill — is excessive and would encourage racial profiling, arguing that exposed underwear is simply a fashion statement by mostly black youths.

Delegate Lionell Spruill Sr., Chesapeake Democrat, said the bill violates the Constitution.

“This is a foolish bill because it will hurt so many,” said Mr. Spruill, who is black. “This will be a bill that will target blacks.”

At one point, Mr. Spruill suggested that lawmakers who vote for the bill “should be ashamed” and said Mr. Howell has let his constituents down.

Delegate John S. Reid, Henrico Republican, said Mr. Spruill had “crossed the line” of traditional debate decorum.

“I got your attention, Mr. Reid. I’m glad I did,” Mr. Spruill told Mr. Reid after apologizing. “Don’t hurt students. Remember, you were once young yourself. Don’t do another thing to hurt black people.”

Still, the underwear bill generated some lighthearted debate and laughs among the delegates.

Mr. Spruill conducted an informal survey of his colleagues, asking about their youthful fashion fads and faux pas. The responses, he said, ranged from Afros to platform shoes to polyester leisure suits.

“Please, let these kids express themselves,” he said. “It will pass on. Don’t fine these young kids. You had your time, let them have their time.”

Mr. Reid, a former teacher, said the trend of youngsters wearing baggy pants represents “the coarsening of this society.”

“We’ve stood by and watched little things occur,” he said. “Surely, there are those of us who look at our pictures when we were 12 years old and laugh at them, but they were not offensive. They were not wearing their underwear out.

“Underwear is called underwear for a reason — because it is normally worn under your clothes,” Mr. Reid said.

However, Kent Willis, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, said the bill “clearly targets” black men.

“African-Americans are going to be the ones who are harassed by police under this law,” Mr. Willis said yesterday.

“Another concern is that legislators may have started a trend where they are designating themselves the arbiters of taste for Virginia, maybe even the fashion police,” the ACLU director said. “This is simply not the kind of detail legislators should be addressing.”

In June, Louisiana’s Legislature rejected a bill that would have made it illegal to wear sagging pants that exposed a person’s underwear. According to published reports, the Louisiana House voted 54-39 to reject the bill, which was later parodied on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show.” That bill would have imposed a $175 fine.

Mr. Howell’s bill has been sent to the Senate, where its chances were not clear yesterday.

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