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Lawyer cited for blasting Justin Timberlake wins case with Florida Supreme Court

Published Dec. 14, 2012

The Florida Supreme Court is bringing sexy back.

In a unanimous decision Thursday, the court struck down a state law regulating noise from car stereos in a case spearheaded by a St. Petersburg lawyer who received a citation in 2007 for blaring a Justin Timberlake song in his car.

The lawyer, Richard Catalano, 51, challenged the citation and courts repeatedly sided with him. But the state kept appealing.

The final declaration came Thursday, with the high court ruling that the statute is unconstitutional because it prohibits certain forms of speech while permitting others.

"I'm very pleased with it," said Catalano, who spent thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours fighting the case. "I think it was worth it."

But in Tampa, which put revisions to its own noise rules on hold while the case was heard, took something the court did not say in its ruling as a green light to now proceed.

And a Tampa City Council member who has taken an earful of complaints about loud car stereos wants to get moving on the local rules.

"We receive a lot of complaints from constituents about loud noise from automobiles," said council member Frank Reddick. "We tabled the discussion because we were waiting on a court ruling. If there's ground for us to go forward, and we can make this constitutional, I will definitely lead the effort."

Catalano was joined in the court case by Alexander Schermerhorn, a New Port Richey man also issued a citation under the same statute. Catalano declined to say which Justin Timberlake song he was listening to when he landed the $73.50 citation in November 2007.

The legal battle was closely watched by local governments throughout the state.

"It looks like the St. Pete police might have pulled over the wrong lawyer with a subwoofer," said Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, an assistant professor at Stetson University College of Law. "I think that this court case is a homework assignment from the Florida Supreme Court for localities to go back and look at their ordinances to make sure they don't match the state statute."

The state law in question prohibits drivers from playing a car stereo or other device so loud that it is "plainly audible at a distance of 25 feet or more." It makes an exception for vehicles that are used "for business or political purposes."

That exception was at the heart of the court's reasoning that the statute violated the First Amendment.

"For instance, business and political vehicles may amplify commercial or political speech at any volume, whereas an individual traversing the highways for pleasure would be issued a citation for listening to any type of sound, whether it is religious advocacy or music, too loudly," wrote Justice Jorge Labarga.

Part of the state's argument was that the statute helped ensure traffic safety. But Labarga wrote that it's not clear how traffic safety is protected by allowing political or commercial speech, but prohibiting other speech.

Catalano said a number of attorneys have contacted him about filing a class action lawsuit to recover fees people have paid for previous violations of the state noise law.

St. Petersburg city officials did not return calls seeking comment about the ruling.

Tampa has been in limbo in recent years as City Council members have sought to modify an existing noise ordinance so it would be more useful.

But they wanted any changes to be constitutional. So they waited for the clarification.

Currently, Tampa bans noise above a certain decibel level. That requires expensive equipment not every police car has. It would be easier for authorities to enforce a noise ordinance that bans noise "plainly audible" from a certain distance.

It's a phrase many municipalities already use in their noise ordinances, said Tampa assistant city attorney Rebecca Kert.

As Catalano's case progressed, the 2nd District Court of Appeal ruled that the phrase "plainly audible" is unconstitutionally vague, overbroad or arbitrary.

But the Florida Supreme Court did not make an issue of that phrase.

That's all Tampa wanted.

"It leaves us with the ability to use this tool, and that in itself is a good thing for us," Kert said.

Times staff writer Jamal Thalji contributed to this report. Dan Sullivan can be reached at (727) 893-8321 or dsullivan@tampabay.com.

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