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Local car noise case makes it all the way to the state Supreme Court

TALLAHASSEE — The case of a Clearwater driver fighting a $73.50 ticket for playing his car stereo too loud made it all the way to the Florida Supreme Court Thursday.

Richard Catalano's argument: His right to blast his music as loud as he wants is protected by the First Amendment.

Catalano has been fighting a state noise law since 2007 when he was pulled over for playing a Justin Timberlake song too loud. (He won't say what song.)

"I like Justin, so there!" Catalano, a corporate lawyer, said after the 45-minute hearing. "Who would have thought I'd get to the Supreme Court over a 73 dollar ticket?"

At issue is whether the state law violates the U.S. Constitution by restricting some types of expression but not others. The state law bans "plainly audible" noise from a motor vehicle at a distance of 25 feet or more, but does not apply to businesses or political speech, which have a higher First Amendment protection.

In other words, the right to blare Rush Limbaugh is protected. But Led Zeppelin is not.

Catalano argued that the state law is too vague, too restrictive and invites arbitrary enforcement.

To illustrate his point Thursday, he backed 25 feet away from the justices, waived his arms in the air, and asked, "Can you hear me over here? This is a conversational tone. I should be given a ticket? That's what they're doing. That's why I'm here."

Timothy Osterhaus, a lawyer for the state, told judges that the law "has to start somewhere" to protect drivers' safety and ensure that they can hear emergency vehicles and other traffic.

Catalano said he had no problem hearing the siren when the police officer pulled him over to give him the citation.

The Supreme Court hearing follows a circuit court ruling that agreed with Catalano and invalidated the law. The 2nd District Court of Appeal in Lakeland upheld the circuit court ruling in May. The judges could take months to decide the case, which will likely mark the end of a four-year legal battle that has been closely followed by local governments looking for guidance on how to write and enforce noise ordinances.

In January, Pinellas County launched "Operation Lower the Boom" to encourage people to report noise disturbances that are "unreasonably loud and raucous."

Catalano is convinced his court challenges shaped that ordinance.

"They see the writing on the wall, and that this state statute is going to go bye, bye," he said. "They have crafted the local ordinance to be much more constitutional."

Brittany Alana Davis can be reached at bdavis@tampabay.com.

Local car noise case makes it all the way to the state Supreme Court 02/09/12 [Last modified: Thursday, February 9, 2012 3:36pm]
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