Florida Supreme Court Strikes Down Noise Law As First Amendment Violation – State v. Catalano

December 19, 2012 by David S. Seltzer

Constitutional law comes up plenty in criminal defense law, but most often, it comes up in the context of unreasonable search and seizure or the right to a speedy trial. So I was interested and pleased to see that the right to free speech was the reason that a Florida state law was struck down last week. In State v. Catalano, Richard Catalano and Alexander Schermerhorn were convicted separately of violating a state statute forbidding loud car stereos that are “plainly audible” from 25 feet or more away from the vehicle. Both pleaded not guilty and moved to dismiss because the law was unconstitutional, but ultimately pleaded nolo contendere and reserved the right to appeal. The Second District Court of Appeal agreed that the law was unconstitutional, and after review, the Florida Supreme Court agreed.

Catalano was cited in 2007 and Schermerhorn in 2008. The 1990 law they were accused of violating forbade car stereos audible at 25 feet or further or that are “louder than necessary” when outside churches, schools or hospitals; it makes an exception for law enforcement and vehicles used for business or political purposes. They moved to dismiss their citations in separate county court cases, but those motions were denied based on a 1998 Fifth District Court of Appeal case. Instead, they pleaded nolo contendere, received withheld adjudication, and reserved the right to appeal. The circuit court for Pinellas County reversed, citing a Second District Court of Appeal decision saying the law was overly broad. Their appeals were consolidated in the Second District, which nonetheless denied review of the circuit court’s opinion, saying the decision comported with the law and also that the statute is an unconstitutional restriction on content.

The state appealed again to the Florida Supreme Court, asking for a determination on whether the statute is not overly vague or broad and whether the business and political exceptions were permissible. The high court found it was not vague, but it was broad and impermissibly treated different speech differently. On vagueness, the defendants argued that whether a stereo is audible 25 feet away is subjective because it’s determined by an individual law enforcement officer. However, the high court said, exact standards are not required for a finding of constitutionality. They had better luck arguing that the statute was overly broad. Because the statute exempts political and commercial speech, the Supreme Court said, it discriminates according to the type of speech—violating the First Amendment. And because removing the exemption would change the nature of the statute, the court said, it cannot be severed. Thus, it declared the whole statute unconstitutional.

Traffic tickets don’t sound like a big deal, but they can be in Florida, because state law requires authorities to suspend your driver’s license if you have too many unpaid tickets. As a result, traffic ticket defense can become part of defending a charge for driving while license suspended, or another Florida criminal charge. Sometimes, the driver has no idea there’s a problem until he or she is pulled over for unrelated reasons, and then thrown in jail or forbidden from driving home. That’s why it’s vital to address tickets you’d like to fight as early as possible, or get the help of an experienced attorney resolving a series of unpaid tickets.

If you’re accused of a traffic violation or any other crime in South Florida, don’t wait to call Seltzer Law, P.A., for a free, confidential consultation. To learn more about your rights and tell us your story, you can call us 24 hours a day at 1-888-THE-DEFENSE (1-888-843-3333) or send us a message online.

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