Ocala, Florida, a city near Jacksonville, Florida, enacted a city ordinance that prohibited “unnecessary or disturbing noises”. Normally, this comes up when a person is playing loud music in his/her vehicle. An individual was cited in Ocala, Florida for violating this noise ordinance and appealed his case claiming that the law is unconstitutional.
More specifically, the ordinance prohibits loud, jarring, raucous or unusual noise which annoys, disturbs, injures or endangers the comfort, health, safety or peace or reasonable people within the city limits. A law, whether it is a city ordinance that can normally only result in a fine, or a criminal law that can result in jail time, is unconstitutional if it is vague and overbroad. A law is overbroad if it addresses constitutionally protected activities as well as unprotected activities. In other words, if the law is worded to broadly so that it covers too much conduct, more than necessary, it will be unconstitutional.
A law is vague if it does not precisely indicate to people what conduct the law defines as illegal. The Due Process Clause of the Constitution requires the government to make laws that specifically and clearly warn people what actual conduct is being criminalized. If the law is poorly written so that it is not clear what people should do and not do to avoid criminal activity, the law is unconstitutionally vague. With vague laws, the police and the state have a greater opportunity to arbitrarily or discriminately apply the law, and the Constitution specifically prohibits that kind of application of the laws. For instance, with a law like this, one might guess that the police in Ocala would be more likely to pull over a young person playing rap music than an older person playing Beethoven, if both were played at the same noise level.
In this case, the Florida court held that the law was both overbroad and vague. It was overbroad because playing music is a common form of expression, and the law was written too broadly so that it infringed on a person’s right to express him/herself by playing music in a vehicle. It was vague because the law basically says a person can be in violation of the ordinance if he/she plays music that a reasonable person finds annoying. How would a person deciding which music to play and how loudly to play it know what this hypothetical reasonable person considers annoying? For that reason, and others, this law was found to be unconstitutional.
Some people may read this and wonder what impact an ordinance like this may have. What is the big deal? Just turn your music down or pay a fine if you get caught. One area this can be a problem is that a law like this gives the police a basis to stop you. A police officer can use this ordinance to stop your vehicle, and all the officer has to do to justify the stop is say you were playing loud, annoying music. How are you going to prove you weren’t? Once that police officer stops you, it not difficult for that traffic stop to turn into a criminal investigation. Many marijuana arrests, subjective DUI arrests and other criminal arrests stem from what appears to be a harmless traffic stop at first. Given how ridiculous our drug laws are and how subjective a DUI arrest can be, the fewer reasons the police have to stop your vehicle, the better.