Drivers who enjoy rolling down their windows and blasting their favorite music may now need to think twice if they want to avoid a fine.
Beginning July 1, Florida police can stop drivers and issue them a noncriminal infraction for playing music “plainly audible” from 25 feet away — about the width of two highway lanes, or two car lengths — whether they’re driving or parked. In Pinellas County, that could mean a $116 fine.
Any sounds that a person can detect using their normal hearing are considered to be plainly audible, according to rules from the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.
An officer doesn’t need to be able to distinguish lyrics or words to classify a noise as plainly audible, the rule reads — they just need to detect “a rhythmic bass reverberating type sound.”
The law is stricter for drivers near churches, schools or hospitals, as well as any areas adjoining private residences, where playing music or other sounds louder than necessary is a traffic violation.
The measure was part of a wider bill proposed during this year’s legislative session aimed at cracking down on unsanctioned pop-up parties that have been seen in Daytona Beach and elsewhere. Critics say such gatherings draw massive, noisy crowds that inundate roads with traffic.
“They kind of invade the area, take it over, shut down roads and just basically have a party and tear through the neighborhoods,” said Rep. Tom Leek, R-Ormond Beach, who sponsored the legislation in the Florida House.
The law grants power to local authorities and law enforcement to carve out “special event zones” where they suspect a pop-up party is happening. Anybody who commits a traffic infraction in those zones will face double fines and can have their vehicle impounded for up to three days.
The volume-limiting statute has raised alarms among critics, who say they worry about how police will decide when to enforce it and fear it gives law enforcement a pretext to pull over drivers for unrelated reasons, including to conduct searches.
“If somebody on Bayshore is blasting Bach (the classical music composer), are they going to pull them over, compared to somebody who may be in East Tampa, Jackson Heights area who may be listening to rap?” said Sarah Couture, the Florida state director for the Fines and Fees Justice Center. “There’s a lot of subjectivity there.”
The law will mean more fines for Floridians whose budgets are already stretched thin by rising rent, food and gas costs, Couture said. She noted communities that already face a large number of traffic stops will likely be most affected.
Leek said that isn’t the law’s intent, and that it’s instead aimed at drivers using specially installed speakers to deliberately amplify music to the surrounding area.
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Florida previously had a similar law, but the state Supreme Court struck it down in 2012 after a St. Petersburg lawyer challenged it as unconstitutional for prohibiting certain forms of speech while permitting others. That law had allowed an exemption for commercial and political advertising from vehicles.
Lawmakers changed the statute this year to remove that exemption. But Richard Catalano, the lawyer who challenged the original law, called the new version “even worse than the original statute.”
“It is facially unconstitutional and rife for abuse,” Catalano wrote in an email to the Tampa Bay Times, citing the broad authority the law gives officers to pull over drivers, dole out fines and impound vehicles in special event zones. “It’s just a matter of time before this statute’s constitutionality is challenged and it is set aside once again.”
Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said in a statement that his office will “enforce this amended traffic law like we do all other traffic statutes,” and said his deputies will use discretion in enforcing traffic laws and in deciding whether to issue a warning or citation.
The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office shared statistics saying it had issued 44 citations since the beginning of 2011 under the earlier noise statute.
“As with any new laws that take effect, the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office will review them to determine if our current practices are in line with the changes,” the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office said in a statement.
A spokesperson for the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office told the Tampa Bay Times that “deputies have been made aware of the change in statute and can certainly enforce it, as they can with all other traffic laws.”