A Richmond District Court judge ruled Tuesday that the city's controversial noise ordinance is unconstitutional.
The new law placed broad new constraints on “plainly audible” noise after 11 pm. Violating the ordinance can result in a class 2 misdemeanor, punishable by a $1,000 fine or six months in jail.
The noise ordinance got its first test when rock band Little Master -- Timothy Morris, Michael Bourlotos and Leah Clancy -- and Rozalia Janicki challenged the ordinance 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.
Speaking from the bench, Manchester District Court Judge Robert Pustilnik ruled that by carving out a special exception for music or noise produced by religious activity, the ordinance advanced noise-making that was “non-secular” in its expression.
“Essentially, this ordinance forces anyone who makes a noise after 11 p.m. to ask themselves whether what they are doing is religious in nature,” Pustilnik said. “It is the job of cities and counties to protect citizens from unwanted noises, but this goes far beyond that.”
Questions about the constitutionality of the ordinance have been raised for months. In a surprising move, Richmond Commonwealth's Attorney Michael Herring spoke out against the ordinance at a 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 City Council's approval -- and had little to say.
“We were surprised by his comment, because we did not get that kind of feedback after it was drafted,” Tyler says.
Tyler says he doesn't know if City Council will appeal the judge's decision. According to the judge, city officials have 15 days to decide.
Steve Benjamin, a lawyer representing Little Master and Janicki, says that if the city abides by the judge's ruling, pending charges against anyone cited for violating the ordinance will be dropped.
That news comes as little relief to Tropical Soul owner Kahlifa Maddox. He and co-owner Nadira Chase are one of the 125 people cited for violating the ordinance since it passed in February. They are due in court Dec. 20.
Maddox, however, says he's more concerned with getting back the customers he claims to have lost since police began cracking down on noise violations.
“We've had to cut back live music to just one day a week,” he says. “People are starting to stay away. We're barely hanging on now.”