by Jeff Schweers and Kaustuv Basu


January 10, 2011

Tom Palumbo likes to crank up the bass when he drives his purple 2005 Dodge Magnum. But after getting a $119 ticket in September for playing music too loudly on his car stereo, the 47-year-old Palm Bay, Fla., resident says he keeps his eyes peeled for local law enforcement when he’s on the road.
“Oh yeah, c’mon, it’s a purple Magnum,” Palumbo says. “Everyone gives you dirty looks.”

Palumbo was one of the thousands of people ticketed last year under a Florida law that makes it a criminal offense to drive with a car stereo “plainly audible” to a police officer 25 feet or more away, according to the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.

He is also one of several challenging the law.

Florida’s Second District Court of Appeal twice has struck down similar municipal noise ordinances as unconstitutional, says Muslima Lewis, a senior attorney for ACLU of Florida. The court is scheduled to hear oral arguments Jan. 26 that seek to void the state law under which Palumbo was ticketed, says Clearwater attorney Richard Catalano, who himself is challenging the law.

STREET NOISE: Laws let bars go louder, later

Cities across the USA — including Covington, Ky.; Green Bay, Wis.; Gulfport, Miss.; Huntsville, Ala.; Lorain, Ohio; and Peoria, Ill. — are increasingly using similar ordinances to impose fines and reduce noise from drivers that sport loud car stereos, according to Ted Rueter, president of Noise Free America, an organization that promotes noise pollution laws.

Other cities have stepped up enforcement in the past year, Rueter says, “because people don’t want their homes and businesses invaded by thumping at all hours of the day and night, causing them to lose sleep, get headaches, experience chronic fatigue and suffer stress.”

•The Nevada cities of Reno and Sparks adopted loud car stereo ordinances last June and September, respectively. Sparks Councilman Ron Smith says both ordinances make it a misdemeanor if a car stereo is “plainly audible” to an officer from 25 feet or more.

“The facts are that folks that turn up their car radios so loud that it rattles your teeth when they pull alongside of you is not only rude and disruptive, but people get very angry and it causes confrontations,” Smith says.

•The Elgin, Ill., City Council toughened its noise ordinance in 2009, adding a provision to impound the offending vehicle and double the fine to $500, Police Chief Jeff Swoboda says.

The combination of stiffer penalties and a massive education campaign helped police reduce the number of tickets issued by half, Swoboda says.

•Elkhart, Ind., has a “zero tolerance” policy when it comes to noise, Mayor Dick Moore says.

After his election in 2007, the City Council passed a car-noise ordinance making it a ticketable offense to play a car stereo that could be measured at more than 83 decibels from at least 35 feet, Moore says. Fines start at $250 for a first offense and run as high as $1,500, he says.

Since passing the ordinance, the city has issued about 2,000 tickets, generating more than $273,000 in revenue. That money has helped the city buy 24 patrol cars without dipping into taxpayer pockets, Moore says.

“We are getting their attention,” Moore says.

Even as cities step up enforcement or embrace stricter laws with heavier fines, lawyers in Florida are challenging the state law and municipal ordinances.

In July, the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida received a $50,000 settlement for its client, Mark Cannon, from the city of Sarasota. The settlement includes an agreement that the city would no longer enforce the ordinance, the ACLU says. Cannon was stopped for loud music and his vehicle was impounded.

Catalano was listening to Justin Timberlake when he got a ticket, he says. He entered a no contest plea in traffic court, with the condition that he could appeal the case. He did, and a circuit court panel overturned the lower court’s ruling, saying the state law was unconstitutional. The Florida attorney general has asked an appeals court to overturn the circuit court’s ruling.

“I’m not saying authorities have no right to regulate noise,” Catalano says. “But there’s a right way and wrong way. There have to be objective standards, not the whim of an officer at any time.”

Lou Virelli, an associate professor in constitutional law at Stetson University in Deland, Fla., says two issues usually raise constitutional concerns: whether the law is being enforced selectively and whether it violates a person’s free-speech rights.

Some plaintiffs could argue that playing one’s car stereo is an expression of free speech, he says.

“Constitutional concerns are based on the government’s ability to regulate individual freedom vs. the individual’s right to do what they want and be free from governmental intrusion,” Virelli says.

Schweers and Basu also report for Florida Today in Melbourne, Fla.