by Aaron Kase

March 11, 2013

The joke’s on him — a New York man is facing charges of disturbing the peace after a neighbor complained that he was laughing too loud in his house. The man, who suffers from neurological impairments, could face as much as 30 days in jail for his good humor.

Loud people beware — anything from band practice, running a lawnmower or enthusiastic lovemaking could be a violation of noise laws, if it’s annoying enough. How much sound you can make is regulated by a patchwork of local, state and federal laws through specific ordinances or enforcement of related nuisance statutes.

Among recent noise-law related news:

•Last year, a man in Portland, Maine made an agreement in court with the city that he would not loiter while he whistles, after complaints from businesses led to his arrest for excessively loud whistling. Robert Smith found himself on the wrong end of the city’s disorderly conduct laws, which specifically list loud whistling as a violation.

•Lawmakers in Smithfield, N.C., had to nix gunshots from the county’s list of banned sounds after complaints from gun owners flooded in.

•Alamo Township, Mich., is facing a controversy over whether its proposed noise ordinance will adversely affect the Kalamazoo Speedway.

•Portland, Ore., has the harshest known noise penalty, issuing fines of up to $5,000 for violators.

Constitutional Challenge

What can and cannot be included in a noise law is not clear-cut. Last year, Florida’s noise ordinance was thrown out in a case that made it all the way to the state Supreme Court. When attorney Richard Catalano was ticketed $73.50 in Tampa for playing a Justin Timberlake song too loudly from his car stereo, he decided to fight back, and won.

Justices ruled that a law that banned music from car stereos that was “plainly audible” from 25 feet away was a free speech violation, because it did not also apply to political or commercial messages. The judges did reject Catalano’s claim that the “plainly audible” language was too broad, though a lower court had previously agreed with him.

The semantics remain controversial. “The trend toward noise regulations is to enact objective standards that can be measured and quantified, and to get away [from] vague, ambiguous stands such as ‘disturbing, unreasonable, annoying, and plainly audible,’” says Mark Bentley, an attorney in Florida who helps governments craft noise ordinances that can sustain legal challenges.

Although the Florida court upheld the “plainly audible” standard, Bentley advises more precision. “I believe that the government needs to have a an objective standard in order to have a reasonable chance to enforce its ordinance,” he says. “A lot of local governments employ a dual approach with a nuisance standard (annoy, disturb, unreasonable, plainly audible), along with objective decibel standards.”

Subjective and Objective

“Plainly audible” is objective enough, argues Ted Rueter, director of Noise Free America. “I just think plainly audible is an objective standard, and the most reasonable and easiest standard to apply,” Rueter says. “If you require sound meters, there’s the expense to buy them, and the need to train police.”

His organization has created a detailed manual with guidelines on how to craft an effective noise ordinance and maintains a list of state, local and federal noise laws.

“There is no constitutional right to make noise,” says Rueter. “There can be restrictions on speech and noise, as far as time, place and manner.”

The good news is, if the neighbors are screaming at each other at 3 a.m. or a nearby business is causing a ruckus, that means there is potential recourse. For condominium dwellers, the board should be equipped to hear complaints and resolve disputes.

People in apartments and houses can make a complaint to law enforcement, depending on their local ordinance. “If a noise is really bothering you, you go before a judge to decide if it’s a nuisance or not,” says Keil M. Larson, a real estate attorney in Chicago.

Complainants can hire an acoustical engineer to quantify the noise and make a relevant comparison, i.e., the equivalent of a chainsaw buzzing at 10 feet away. “You want to have some frame of reference,” Larson says, “when you talk to the judge or condo board.”