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What Noise Lies Ahead: City Mulls Law's Do-Over



Now that a Richmond District Court judge has ruled the city's controversial noise ordinance is unconstitutional, City Council is working to sort out what comes next.

Passed unanimously in February, the ordinance places broad new constraints on what it calls “plainly audible” noise after 11 p.m. Violations can result in a class two misdemeanor, punishable by a $1,000 fine or six months in jail.

The new law got its first and only test when rock band Little Master — Timothy Morris, Michael Bourlotos and Leah Clancy — and Rozalia Janicki challenged it in court earlier this year. All four were cited April 4 for “creating loud music” and “loud noise from residence” at a house on West Clay Street.

Manchester District Court Judge Robert Pustilnik ruled Nov. 30 that by carving out a special exception to the ordinance for music or noise produced by religious activity, the law advanced noise making that was nonsecular in its expression.

“It is the job of cities and counties to protect citizens from unwanted noises,” Pustilnik said, “but this goes far beyond that.”

The question of the law's constitutionality has raged for months. Perhaps most damning, Richmond Commonwealth's Attorney Michael Herring spoke out against it at an October court hearing, saying that the law “is bad and needs to be stricken.”

But City Councilman Bruce Tyler says that Herring reviewed a draft of the ordinance prior to the council's approval — and had little to say.

“We were surprised by his comment,” Tyler says, “because we did not get that kind of feedback after it was drafted.”

That's not exactly how Herring recalls it. Speaking days after the court's decision, Herring says that while he can't recall if his office reviewed a draft copy of the ordinance before its passage, he expressed concerns early in the draft process about the law's breadth. Still, he says, the sponsors of the ordinance “indicated that it was a place holder meant to plug a hole while they pursued something more permanent.”

With confidence in the legality of the current ordinance shaky, city officials, including its author, City Councilman Charles Samuels, began meeting in April to brainstorm ideas for a new version.

During a workshop on Nov. 8, council members and city officials reviewed noise laws from a number of Virginia cities and towns, including some that are based on measurable decibel levels. That would be ideal, Herring says.

“The simpler and more objective the ordinance is, the easier it is to enforce,” Herring says. “And with one that's based on decibel level, you won't have police officers subjectively trying to determine whether something is too loud.”

Herring says Richmond police have been told not to enforce the current law. City officials have until Dec. 15 to appeal Judge Pustilnik's decision.

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