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Florida noise law falls victim to lawyer's crusade

Tampa Bay can now turn the dials up to 11: An appellate court has declared the state statute allowing police to ticket booming car stereos is unconstitutional and violates the First Amendment.

It's another victory for St. Petersburg corporate lawyer Richard Catalano, whose 3-1/2-year fight against the state law prohibiting loud noise started when he got a $73.50 ticket for blasting Justin Timberlake from his white 2003 Infiniti G35.

It's a legal battle that's been followed closely by governments across Florida that are battling for peace and quiet, including the city of Tampa, which has been trying to fine-tune its noise ordinance.

On Wednesday the 2nd District Court of Appeal in Lakeland — which oversees 14 counties, including Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco — ruled that the state's noise statute is unconstitutional.

The court decided that the statute is not "content-neutral" — in other words, it decides what noise is and isn't allowed. A candidate has the right to blare political messages from one vehicle, for example, but the booming stereo from another could be considered illegal.

"There is no compelling government interest requiring disparate treatment of commercial or political speech vs. amplified music," the court ruled.

The judges also agreed with Catalano that the standard for judging what's too loud is too broad and vague. The standard says anything that can be heard 25 feet away from a motor vehicle is "plainly audible" and is therefore illegal. "It's unconstitutionally vague because it means a million different things to a million different people," Catalano said.

No one thinks the fight is over. Another district court has ruled differently, so the 2nd DCA has asked the Florida Supreme Court to weigh in on the matter. Catalano believes the Florida Attorney General's Office also will appeal.

That means the resolution that cities like Tampa are looking for is going to take a while. After hearing complaints about thundering car stereos, street parties and loud bullhorns, the Tampa City Council was on the verge of tweaking its noise ordinance — but closely watching the court case first.

In a council workshop session two weeks ago, working-class homeowners in east Tampa, high-rise condo dwellers in the Channel District and restaurateurs in Ybor City grumbled about those problems. An existing city law limited noise from nonmoving sources such as construction sites and honky-tonk bars, officials told the City Council. But officials say the ordinance is not as useful when the noise comes from something on a public street — say, a car.

Regulating noise, though, is a difficult issue, assistant city attorney Rebecca M. Kert told council members at that meeting.

The last time the city changed its noise ordinance, it took three years, the hiring of experts and several community meetings.

Antinoise activists like Judy Ellis of St. Petersburg believe excessive noise is a proven threat to public safety and health. Other states have dealt with the problem, she said, and one day Florida law will get it right, too. "I'm confident that eventually we'll come to something we can all live with," she said. "My concern is that it's going to take a while.

"And in the meantime, it's like we're out there naked. We have nothing to protect us from the noisemakers."

Catalano said he has received hate mail over his legal fight, but he actually agrees with Ellis that the state should be able to regulate noise. But until the Legislature comes up with an objective standard for deciding what's too loud, he's going to keep fighting.

"I knew the day they gave me the ticket that it was wrong," he said. "If they want to go to Tallahassee, I say let's go."

Florida noise law falls victim to lawyer's crusade 05/11/11 [Last modified: Thursday, May 12, 2011 3:01pm]
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