Florida Supreme Court Shoots Down Noise Law on First Amendment Grounds – State v. Catalano

Earlier this month, the state Supreme Court struck down a controversial noise law banning people from blasting music out of their cars in State v. Catalano.

Richard Catalano and Alexander Schermerhorn were cited in separate incidents in Pinellas County for violating the noise ordinance, Section 316.3045(1)(a), Florida Statutes (2007). The statute makes it unlawful for a person operating or occupying a vehicle to play a radio, stereo or similar device at a level that’s “plainly audible at a distance of 25 feet or more from the motor vehicle.”

A county court denied motions by both Catalano and Schermerhorn to dismiss the charges against them, in which they argued that the statute is unconstitutional. On appeal, a circuit court in Pinellas reversed the decision, finding that the statute’s “plainly audible” standard was unconstitutionally vague and therefore not enforceable. The court relied on the Second District Court of Appeal’s 1996 decision in Easy Way of Lee County, Inc. v. Lee County, issuing a similar ruling.

On further appeal, the Florida Supreme Court agreed that the law is unconstitutional. However, the court found that the statute was an unreasonable restriction on the freedom of expression, rather than impermissibly vague. The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution generally protects individuals’ freedom of speech, including a wide range of expression, from gestures and actions, to the clothes (or lack of clothes) people choose to wear. Although speech and expression may be regulated, courts frown on laws that are overbroad, barring or chilling a substantial amount of protected speech.

The court explained that the right to play amplified music in a public forum, such as on a street, is protected under the First Amendment. Such speech may be subject to reasonable time, place and manner restrictions. However, a restriction showing a preference for any particular content is subject to “strict scrutiny,” meaning it must be “narrowly tailored” to serve a compelling government interest and allow other alternatives for communication of the specific form of speech regulated.

Here, the court found that the noise ordinance treats commercial and political speech more favorably than non-commercial speech by applying the ban only to the latter form of speech. “For instance, business and political vehicles may amplify commercial or political speech at any volume, whereas an individual traversing the highways for pleasure would be issued a citation for listening to any type of sound, whether it is religious advocacy or music, too loudly,” the court explained.

Although protecting the public from excessive noise is a compelling interest, the court found that the statute was not reasonably designed to advance that interest because it left open the loophole for commercial and political purposes. As a result, the court ruled that the statute was an unreasonable restriction on First Amendment rights and affirmed the lower court’s ruling.

From noise violations to drug charges and other felonies, if you have received a citation or been charged with a crime in Florida, the South Florida criminal defense attorneys at Anidjar & Levine can help. We have years of experience and a proven track record of success in handling our clients’ cases.

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