There are numerous schools of thought about how much behavior should be legislated. Many argue that as legislators criminalize more and more actions, the more likely it becomes that average citizens will be treated as criminals. And because laws can be selectively enforced, having an excessive number of laws on the books gives police too much power to harass or punish certain groups of people and not others.
A good example is the recent vote by a city in Florida to repeal two city ordinances that ban the wearing of “saggy pants.” The city of Opa-Locka, which is northeast of Miami, passed a ban in 2007 on wearing saggy pants that reveal a person’s underwear. It was primarily applied to men. But in 2013, the city passed another ordinance that essentially specified that women were also prohibited from wearing saggy pants that revealed undergarments. Violators could be slapped with civil citations, and there are actually signs posted in the city warning against the fashion choice.
Recently, the city commission voted 4-1 to repeal both measures (meaning one member apparently stands by these ridiculous laws). The current mayor also spoke out against the laws, noting that they disproportionately targeted young African-American men. The Florida ACLU made the same allegations when the bans were first enacted.
On the surface, it would be easy to dismiss laws like these as hilariously misguided attempts to impose high school rules on grown adults. But even laws that seem foolish or insignificant can have real consequences for those they target. We wrote recently about pretextual traffic stops, in which police officers use small traffic infractions as an excuse to pull over drivers and investigate larger crimes. Well, a ban on saggy pants could be yet one more reason for police to detain someone on the street and begin poking around for other offenses.
The laws we pass (usually) serve an important public safety function, but we need to carefully balance public safety with individual rights and personal freedoms. The more things we choose to outlaw, the more we throw our priorities out of balance and endanger our own freedoms.