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City’s noise ordinance has been quiet

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The city ordinance that was supposed to stifle loud car stereos and motorcycle mufflers has not made much noise since it was implemented April 4, 2011.

City police have handed out just three tickets since the Watertown City Council passed the ordinance, which aimed for tighter control over loud noises than the previous ordinance allowed.

In the most recent incident, a Florida man was stopped in the 300 block of Arsenal Street about 2 a.m. June 8 because police said his car radio was “plainly audible” 50 feet away and was making excessive noise.

But officers apparently have been reluctant to charge people under the noise ordinance.

Instead, they typically charge motorists with misdemeanor disorderly conduct — a minor offense when someone is accused of causing a public disturbance or being a public nuisance — rather than with violation of the noise ordinance, said Detective Sgt. Joseph R. Donoghue.

Disorderly conduct is easier to enforce because it does not rely on the police officer’s discretion as to what constitutes “unreasonable noise,” as stipulated in the ordinance, Detective Sgt. Donoghue said.

The three motorists who were ticketed under the ordinance ended up receiving $50 fines.

That pleases Councilman Joseph M. Butler Jr., who spearheaded the noise ordinance in 2011 and is satisfied that the ordinance is on the books.

“If there’s been fines issued, then that’s the intention of the ordinance,” Mr. Butler said.

But Mr. Butler said he was surprised to hear that the Florida Supreme Court recently ruled against a similar law.

The ruling affirmed two lower Florida court rulings that concluded the 2007 law prohibiting motorists from playing “plainly audible” music violated the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of expression.

In the Florida case, a motorist who liked to crank up Justin Timberlake tunes on his way to work was given a $73 ticket in 2007, then challenged the law, saying it was too subjective.

Mr. Butler said that he did not want to comment about the court ruling or how it might apply to Watertown’s ordinance, and that he has not had a chance to look at the Florida case.

Christina E. Stone, the city attorney who has handled noise-ordinance cases in Watertown City Court, said she was unaware the Florida Supreme Court took up that case, but a judge found a Hycliff Drive woman guilty of violating the Watertown noise ordinance after the woman blasted loud music from her car during a police traffic stop Aug. 4, 2011, on Coffeen Street.

“It was challenged here and it stood up in court,” Ms. Stone said.

But she and Mr. Butler agree the city’s noise ordinance cannot help a Casey Street family that has complained numerous times about loud music from a nearby business, Audio Arsenal, 1057 Arsenal St.

Nothing can be done to help Trudy A. Ryan and her family because the car stereo business is in a commercially zoned area, Mr. Butler said.

In December 2011, an acting city court judge, Fulton City Judge Spencer J. Ludington, dismissed the accusations against Audio Arsenal. He said the ordinance was too vague.

As a result, Mr. Butler said, the Ryan family’s only option is to take legal action against Audio Arsenal in state Supreme Court.

Audio Arsenal co-owner Gregory J. LaDuke, who was cited with violating the noise ordinance, recently said he was vindicated by the court’s dismissal.

“I think it’s a civil rights issue,” he said, stressing the Constitution guarantees his freedom of expression.

“To say I can’t play my music, it’s just unjust.”

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