Noise Ordinance Unconstitutional

Brent Finnegan -- July 14th, 2009

A State Supreme Court ruling has rendered most noise ordinances in Virginia temporarily useless. On April 17, the Virginia Supreme Court threw out Virginia Beach’s noise ordinance on the grounds that it was “unconstitutionally vague.”

Justice Barbara Milano Keenan explained the ruling, stating, “Police officers likely will have differing perceptions regarding what levels of sound exceed the described tolerance levels and sensitivities of reasonable persons.”

Many municipalities in Virginia have similar ordinances. A first-time noise violation is a class 3 misdemeanor under Harrisonburg’s code:

No person shall, knowingly or unknowingly, expose another person to any irritating, distracting, physically or emotionally harmful, unreasonably loud, disturbing or unnecessary noise, over which the other person has no control. (16-10-6)

There’s nothing in Harrisonburg’s ordinance about decibel levels, which will likely be amended, because police officers will now need to measure the noise using decibel meters in order to issue citations. Commonwealth’s Attorney Marsha Garst says they are purchasing noise meters to adjust for the recent changes in the law.

HPD has had 127 noise violation calls for service since June 1 of this year, according to spokesperson Mary-Hope Gangwer. But she adds, “some calls for service could be the same person calling multiple times and duplication, where neighbors are hearing/calling about the same complaint.”

City Council member Richard Baugh wrote:

The ordinance still prohibits breaches of the peace (Section 16-8-12). This might not apply to the neighbor whose stereo is keeping you up. My guess though is that it would apply to major disturbances, including those generating a great deal of noise … Moreover, every jurisdiction in Virginia is going to be going through this at about the same time. So, a certain amount of communication and seeing what other places are doing seems in order.

The proposal on tonight’s City Council agenda aims to amend and re-enact section 15-3-2 of the city code, capping decibel levels at the property line to 65 decibels during the day, and 55 after 10 p.m.

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