Today a Louisiana appeals court sided with the ACLU in ruling that a judge in Orleans Parish Juvenile Court had overstepped his bounds when he ordered a young man on probation to either cut his hair or go to jail.
A.B., a juvenile, was in full compliance with all terms of his probation, including attending school and testing negative for drugs. At a probation hearing on August 29, 2009, he appeared, in the company of his mother, with his hair in dreadlocks. A.B's family is from Jamaica, and all wear dreadlocks. His father is deceased, and A.B. was growing his dreadlocks in anticipation of meeting his father's relatives in Jamaica on an upcoming visit.
A.B. was on probation for the allegation of possession of stolen property. At a prior court hearing, Judge David Bell had told him to cut his hair, although no written court order was issued to that effect. A.B.'s mother had objected to the haircut requirement, saying that the child's hair was evidence, to which the judge replied: "Well, put it in a bag, baby. Put it in a bag."
At the August 29 hearing, Judge Bell told A.B. that he would have to serve a one-year prison sentence if he did not cut his hair by September 23, 2009. Attorney Cecilia Rutherford with JRS (Juvenile Regional Services), representing A.B. in his delinquency proceeding, reached out to the ACLU to assist with taking an appeal regarding the haircut order. The order was overturned today by the Louisiana Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal. Because of the urgency of the matter, ACLU of Louisiana Legal Director Katie Schwartzmann gave it expedited treatment in order to prevent A.B. from being imprisoned for his hair style.
"The choice of hair style is a liberty interest that is part of a free society," said Marjorie R. Esman, Executive Director of the ACLU of Louisiana. "Courts may impose reasonable punishments in criminal proceedings, but they may not impose conditions of probation that are unrelated to the crime."
Schwartzmann said: "If freedom means anything, it means that judges may not arbitrarily impose their own ideas about personal appearance on those who appear before them. Judges simply may not tell people how to wear their hair. We're happy that we could help A.B. continue to succeed with the legitimate terms of his probation while adhering to the traditions of his family."
The ACLU's brief in the case may be found at:http://www.laaclu.org/PDF_documents/AB_Final_writ_application_091809.pdf
The Fourth Circuit's decision may be found at: http://www.laaclu.org/PDF_documents/AB_Writ_GRANTED.pdf