by Craig Fox

Watertown Daily Times

August 7, 2011

Noreese E. Bell says she had no idea that it’s illegal in Watertown to blast loud music from her car stereo until she became the first person to be accused of violating the city’s new noise ordinance Tuesday.

Mrs. Bell, 24, of 435 Hycliffe Drive, Apt. 622, said police followed her several blocks from a State Street bar, through downtown and several traffic lights before stopping her on Coffeen Street about 2:30 a.m. The music, she acknowledged, was loud during the entire drive from the bar.

“I kept saying, ‘What did I do?’ It freaked me out,” she said.

For months, the Watertown City Council mulled over the proposed stricter noise ordinance aimed at loud car stereos and noisy mufflers. After considerable debate, the council in April approved the ordinance, 3-2, with proponents contending it was a quality-of-life issue. Opponents contend the new ordinance will be impossible to enforce evenly. The ordinance also covers controlling noise coming from dwellings and businesses.

But it took a few months before Mrs. Bell became the first motorist charged with violating the ordinance when a city police officer heard her car stereo blasting from 50 feet away, city police said. Police also allege that after she was stopped, occupants in her car kept turning the stereo’s volume up and down. She also was charged with resisting arrest and a series of vehicle and traffic infractions.

Mrs. Bell said she bought the stereo system from a local car stereo shop for about $2,000 as a gift for her husband, a Fort Drum soldier, before he was deployed to Afghanistan.

“I got the stereo 18 months ago. I never got stopped before,” she said.

Police Chief Joseph J. Goss insists it was a legitimate arrest — she created a disturbance in an area where people live and further exasperated the situation by turning the stereo’s volume up and down during the traffic stop.

“It’s a perfect example in how it can be used,” said Councilman Joseph M. Butler Jr., who proposed the ordinance after getting many complaints from constituents about noisy motorcycles and car stereos.

In April, Chief Goss said his officers were briefed about the new ordinance and how it could be used. He acknowledged that the ordinance hasn’t been enforced until recently because officers have been busy with other police work.

He also conferred with Robert J. Slye, the city’s attorney, about the new ordinance. Mr. Slye told him that it was at officers’ disposal until a judge ruled otherwise. Mr. Slye opposed its passage, saying that the city could not enact legislation that supersedes a state vehicle and traffic law dealing with loud car stereos and mufflers.

“I still think that it does that,” Mr. Slye said.

Before it was passed, Chief Goss, who also had heard complaints about excessively loud motorcycle exhausts, said some steps were taken to alert motorcycle repair shops about the pending ordinance. In March, Chief Goss, Jefferson County Sheriff John P. Burns and state police Capt. Darrin S. Pitkin sent a letter to motorcycle shops that do inspections, asking for help in by making sure motorcycles are not equipped with improper exhaust systems.

The law enforcement leaders warned bike shops that police officers would start asking more questions of bikers and begin recording inspection-sticker serial numbers when their motorcycles violate muffler laws, Chief Goss said. The state Department of Motor Vehicles also would be contacted about shop owners who pass inspections on bikes with loud “straight” or “drag” exhaust systems.

He said motorcycle shops have complied with their request.

Jack L. Spry, co-owner of Watertown Power Sports on Route 11 in the town of Watertown, prominently displayed the letter in his shop. And some bikers immediately took exception to it, complaining to him that they wanted louder exhausts, he said.

Mr. Spry insisted he won’t risk losing his inspection permits by approving an illegal exhaust system. Every bike getting an inspection sticker at his shop must have a baffle on it to muffle noise, Mr. Spry said.

“It still comes down to what is excessive noise and what isn’t,” he said. “It’s a judgment call by a police officer.”

In some instances, the citation is generated by a complaint from a neighbor. That’s what happened with Audio Arsenal, a car stereo business whose alleged excessive noise was among the issues that inspired the ordinance.

Neighbors Jean C. and Michael F. Ryan, who live at 116 Casey St. next door to the 1057 Arsenal St. business, have filed 19 complaints that loud noise coming from stereos at the business was unbearable. Police charged owners Gregory J. and Paul E. LaDuke three times with violating the previous noise ordinance, Mr. Slye said.

In June, the two neighbors had their physician, Dr. Frank Rhode, send a letter to the City Council asking that something more be done with the noise coming from Audio Arsenal. He wrote that the noise “has caused significant stress” to his patients and that it “threatens their health.”

“The stress is so great to this couple that they have required medication to control their stress levels, but that intervention alone is not sufficient to deal with this problem,” he wrote.

Mr. Slye said the city will wait to do anything more regarding their claims until the court cases get resolved.

The charges are still pending in City Court. Both City Court judges have recused themselves from the case. Judge James C. Harberson Jr. said he knows someone in the law firm representing the owners, while the owners went to Judge Eugene R. Renzi for legal advice.

Court officials said they don’t know when another judge will be assigned to the case and when it will be resolved.