Measuring the city’s new noise ordinance

Despite the legislation having fallen upon deaf ears, Richmond has passed a new noise ordinance. This new bill not only attempts to fix the issues with that the previous one, which was ruled unconstitutional, but uses new technology to make combating excessive noise easier for police officers. Will it work?

Richmond police have a new weapon in their arsenal: the decimeter. This sound level meter, which is commonly referred to as a decimeter, measures sound pressure levels and is the latest piece of equipment to be used by local police to curb unlawful noise. The city’s noise-ordinance both empowers and requires police officers to enforce the new noise standards using the device.

“You’re taking the subjectivity away,” says Major Scott Booth. “I think it’s a good thing. I think it’s needed.” Maj. Booth favors using sound level meters because they remove the need for an officer to use his or her intuition when assessing a noise complaint. In other words, what can be loud to one set of ears may not be loud for another set of ears. “This gives you a tool,” says Maj. Booth. “Gives you something that’s quantifiable.”

In November 2010, Richmond General District Chief Judge Robert A. Pustilnik ruled that the city’s previous noise ordinance was unconstitutional because, among other reasons, it contained exemptions for religious services or events. Another criticism that Pustilnik levied against the previous ordinance was that the parameters by which officers would use to define excessive noise were broadly defined. Maj. Booth agrees with that sentiment, calling the struck-down ordinance “very subjective.” The new ordinance, which was adopted on July 25, is “much more objective.”

Richmond attorney Stephen Benjamin, who argued in court that the previous noise ordinance–which he said “looked like it had been written by a second grader”–was unconstitutional, says that the new ordinance is a “fairly reasonable attempt to regulate noise.” He favors the inclusion of decibel levels as a criteria by which police and courts will judge noise offenses. “That’s an objective measurement,” says Benjamin.

The new ordinance has a daytime and nighttime differential. The daytime hours (7am – 11pm) prohibit noise exceeding 65 dBA (decibels) inside a structure and 75 dBA outside of a structure. The nighttime hours (11:01pm – 6:59am) cap decibel levels at 55 dBA and 65 dBA from indoor and outdoor areas, respectively (Decibels are logarithmic, meaning that 65 dBA is 100x more powerful than 55 dBA). Exceptions are made for emergency vehicles, permitted activities, events on school grounds, as well as gardening, lawn care, and tree removal projects.

Decibel (dBA) Comparison:

  • 30 dBA – Library
  • 40 dBA – Theater
  • 50 dBA – Dishwasher in the next room
  • 60 dBA – Large business office
  • 70 dBA – Vacuum cleaner at 1o feet
  • 80 dBA – Diesel truck at 50 feet traveling 50 mph
  • 90 dBA – Food blender
  • 100 dBA – Gas lawn mower at 3 feet

“If we find the decibel levels are set so low, “ said Benjamin, “that it continues to criminalize normal, every day sound…we have a constitutional problem.” That’s one of Benjamin’s principal concerns about the new ordinance: that the parameters of acceptable decibel levels are “unrealistically low.”

There are several ways to measure decibel levels. One method uses weighing filters. “A-weighting” is an international standard and the most common way of measuring environmental sound pressure levels, as well as sustained hearing damage that results from loud noises.

When someone submits a noise complaint to police, officers will use a sound level meter to measure the severity of the proposed infraction. Maj. Booth said that officers will take the measurement at the complainer’s location and not near the source of the sound. “We would respond based off who was complaining,” says Maj. Booth. So, for example: an apartment building tenant complains to police that a party held by his or her neighbors down the hall is excessively loud. Police will respond to the complaint by taking a sound level reading at the apartment of the complaining tenant and not outside the door of the apartment in which the party is taking place. “We have to give the offender the benefit of the doubt,” says Maj. Booth. “We want to be objective.”

The current noise ordinance is, as Maj. Booth describes it, “progressively enforced.” The first infraction warrants a Class 4 Misdemeanor. Should a second offense occur within a 12-month period, then the second offense becomes a Class 3 Misdemeanor. A third offense within a 12-month period following an individual’s second offense warrants a Class 2 Misdemeanor. The noise ordinance prevents any further and more severe criminal charges (a Class 2 Misdemeanor is a charge punishable by a sentence of up to 6 months in prison, and/or a $1,000 fine).

The progressive enforcement is another issue of the noise ordinance that concerns Stephen Benjamin—there is no language that specifically qualifies an “offense.” For instance: a person turns up their stereo to a level that greatly irritates his or her neighbors for several minutes, silences the stereo for several minutes, then repeats this behavior several times. The ordinance makes no clarification as to what constitutes an offense. The above hypothetical example could result in the individual being charged with either several offenses or merely one.

The ambiguity in qualifying offenses aside, any offense “has to be measured by a decimeter,” says Maj. Booth. Police officers, however, are still able to issue citations for excessive noise that comes from an automobile’s speaker without measuring the decibel levels. The city has purchased 15 sound level meters as tools to enforce the new noise ordinance. Each of the four precincts has three devices. The Special Operations division has two in their possession, and one device has been give to the city’s Community Assisted Public Safety (CAPS) program. Although unaware as to the cost of the sound level meters, Maj. Booth said that the devices are “not cheap.”



photo by seantoyer

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Nathan Cushing

Nathan Cushing is a writer, journalist, and RVANews Editor.

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