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Thursday, May 22, 2014 12:01 am

Butt out

Circuit clerk bans sagging pants


Sangamon County Circuit Clerk Tony Libri has banned sagging pants in his office.

“No sagging pants policy,” reads an electronic message on a flat-screen television above the counter where people pay traffic fines and child-support bills and otherwise conduct court business. “Any attire that exposes your undergarments will not be permitted. Pull up your pants or you will be asked to leave.”

Most people who fall short comply when asked to hike their trousers to waist level, Libri says, but he has ejected a few saggers since the signs went up in February. So far, he says, there have been no complaints, although he’s aware of constitutional concerns.

“You come into my office, you’re indecent, you’re going to be asked to leave,” Libri says. “Some of our customers were wearing their pants so low that it was indecent. We have children in here all the time as well as adults who just don’t want to see it. … We’ve not had one person say this is a bad idea.”

The Springfield Mass Transit District had a brief foray into the no-sag zone late last year, when a ban on sagging lasted less than a week. The agency instituted the ban in response to complaints from passengers, according to SMTD managing director Frank Squires. Complaints have stopped, he said, even though the ban didn’t last.

“It’s over and done with,” Squires said. “It wasn’t in place even a day or two. … It probably will never come back again.”

Squires said the agency had second thoughts after signs were printed up that included an image of sagging pants.

“When we looked at the pictures we were going to put up, we were not very happy with them,” Squires said.

Libri said his no-sag rule came about after he asked someone to pull up their trousers last fall.

“They were down so far there was nothing left to the imagination – I’m trying to be delicate here,” Libri recalls. “That was it for me. I said ‘Sir, I’m sorry, you’re going to have to pull up your pants before we can serve you any further.’ He hemmed and hawed a little bit. He left.”

Sagging pants aren’t much of an issue during the winter, when coats cover what low-riding britches don’t, Libri says, but the incident last fall prompted him to gear up for sag season by posting signs. Sagging, he says, has gotten more extreme with each passing year, and he didn’t want to wait for things to hit bottom.

“It’s to the point where it’s out of control,” Libri says. “Sometimes, these people can’t walk because their pants are so low – they have to pull their pants up to get to their wallets.”

Libri isn’t alone in his views on what’s inappropriate in the courthouse. Sangamon County Chief Circuit Judge Leslie Graves doesn’t allow sagging in her courtroom, nor does she tolerate shorts, pajama pants or excessive cleavage. She says she continues cases if defendants wear offensive t-shirts, such as the Scarface shirt sported by a fellow charged with cocaine possession. She recalls once admonishing a police officer who showed up wearing shorts that were part of his uniform.

“I told him (the officer) that was not allowed – I’m going to be across-the-board,” Graves said. “I’m fighting a losing battle. … Young people, when they dress well, I make a point of it: I’ll say ‘Thank you for showing respect for the court by putting on a tie.’”

Donald Hanrahan, president of the steering committee of the Springfield chapter of the Illinois American Civil Liberties Union, says Libri has better things to do than ban loose pants.

“Do we really want the circuit clerk to act as the fashion police for the courthouse?” Hanrahan asks. “Do they really have time to do that? This is about people’s expression – clothing, style and personal expression. … It’s bothersome that a government agency would be allowed to dictate style.”

The ACLU has opposed anti-sag legislation in several states, including Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee and Michigan, on the grounds that sag statutes limit freedom of expression.  In 2009, a Florida judge ruled that a no-sag ordinance was unconstitutional and so dismissed a case against a youth who was arrested after police spotted him sagging while riding a bicycle. Nonetheless, the Florida legislature two years later banned sagging pants in public schools, and lawmakers in Arkansas passed a similar ban that same year.

Libri says that he has spoken informally with lawyers in the state’s attorney’s office who have told him that he could find himself on thin constitutional ice, but his no-sag policy stands.

“They’re saying you can’t legislate what people wear,” Libri says. “I’m not an attorney. I can only tell you that indecent exposure is illegal whether the ACLU likes it or not. We’re only going after this when it’s really bad.”

Sagging isn’t Libri’s only sartorial concern. Women, he says, have taken to reaching inside bras to retrieve cash for fines, much to the consternation of employees on the other side of the counter. Hand sanitizer has been distributed, and there is talk of issuing disposable gloves while Libri ponders putting up another sign.

“We’re trying to devise some language: ‘Please don’t give us your sweaty-bra money,’” Libri says. “You have to see it to believe it.”

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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