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Traffic ticket for car stereo turns into legal crusade for Pinellas lawyer

ST. PETERSBURG — Richard T. Catalano remembers quite clearly the morning his epic legal battle started.

He was driving to work. Justin Timberlake was playing on his car stereo. The windows were down. It was 7:34 a.m. Then police lights flashed behind him. He pulled his white 2003 Infiniti G35 over.

His car stereo was too loud, the officer told him.

"What are you talking about?" Catalano told him.

Catalano had run afoul of the state law combating the menace of booming car stereos. He protested — but to no avail.

The St. Petersburg police officer wrote him a $73.50 ticket.

Or, as Timberlake himself might have put it: Cry me a river.

That was Nov. 13, 2007. Catalano, a 49-year-old corporate attorney, has been fighting that ticket ever since — and he's winning.

He's already gotten a panel of judges to declare the statute unconstitutional. The state has appealed. The case could go all the way to the Florida Supreme Court one day. If he ultimately prevails, it could wipe out local vehicle noise ordinances across Florida.

"I guess I'm their worst nightmare," Catalano said. "I'm a lawyer with time."

• • •

Florida statute 316.3045 says that:

It is unlawful for any person operating … a motor vehicle on a street or highway to operate or amplify the sound produced by a radio … from within the motor vehicle so that the sound is … plainly audible at a distance of 25 feet or more.

Catalano represents himself in this legal fight. His motions argue that the standard of "plainly audible" is "overly broad and vague, rendering it an unconstitutional restriction against the right of free speech," protected by both the U.S. and Florida constitutions.

He also cited a 1996 appellate case in which the 2nd District Court of Appeal struck down the "plainly audible" standard of a Lee County noise law as a "subjective standard" that any person "happens to find personally disturbing."

His argument boils down to this: The law is subjective because it depends on the officer's perception of what is too loud. There's no objective way of proving it, so the law can only be applied arbitrarily.

He compared it to an officer pulling vehicles over for speeding on Interstate 275 — but without using a radar gun.

"He doesn't know for sure, but in his mind they were plainly speeding," Catalano said. "That's just how ridiculous and preposterous this statute is."

• • •

Catalano started out 0-1. A Pinellas County judge ruled against him in March 2008. The judge cited a 1998 decision from the 5th District Court of Appeal that found the "plainly audible" standard was constitutional.

"I anticipated he would rule against me," Catalano said. "Here I was asking a county court judge to find a Florida statute was unconstitutional."

County court decisions are appealed to a panel of circuit court judges. And that's where the attorney won his first battle.

Three Pinellas-Pasco circuit judges all sided with the 2nd District Court of Appeal's interpretation — and Catalano — in a February 2010 decision.

Then in March, the Florida Attorney General's Office appealed it to the next level, which happens to be the 2nd District:

"The circuit court's decision erroneously strikes down on constitutional grounds a public safety law, which has been on the books since 1990," the state wrote. "Noise regulation in public areas is 'an important function of government.' "

The battle continues, but there have already been ramifications. Last month, St. Petersburg police legal adviser Don Gibson sent out a memo advising officers to stop enforcing the state's vehicle noise law — and a similar city noise ordinance — during the appeal.

• • •

Now it's Judy Ellis' turn to fume. The 69-year-old St. Petersburg resident became a strident antinoise activist a few years back after she retired as a paralegal.

"I suddenly discovered I was getting these strange pains in my chest," she said. "It took me a while to figure out that as one of these boomers got near me … I would feel those low-frequency vibrations."

Ellis believes those tricked-out car stereos are a threat to public safety and health. She leads a loosely affiliated group of 40 to 50 antinoise activists she calls Noise-Free Florida.

She supports even harsher laws, like the one in Sarasota that allowed police to impound violators' vehicles. The city stopped doing that when the American Civil Liberties Union sued it last year.

Ellis said she once tried to change Catalano's mind but couldn't. She expects him to lose.

"The plainly audible law has been upheld in this state before," she said. "It isn't subjective. Plainly audible means anyone with a normal set of ears can hear it."

• • •

Catalano wouldn't say which Justin Timberlake song he was playing back in 2007. Nor could he say how many billable hours he's put in. Out of pocket, he said, he's spent about $1,000.

"I gave myself a discount," Catalano said.

Gibson, the Police Department's legal adviser, doesn't support Catalano's cause. But he respects the fight.

"Principle is a funny thing," he said. "Someone gets a ticket and then they go to the mat for it and they almost get it overturned.

"I don't agree with it. But I've got to respect it."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

Traffic ticket for car stereo turns into legal crusade for Pinellas lawyer 07/17/10 [Last modified: Saturday, July 17, 2010 11:18pm]
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