Vague sound ordinance ruled unconstitutional

A Minneapolis noise ordinance was ruled unconstitutional because of its unclear requirements.

by Jon Collins

In March, Trocaderos night club sued the city of Minneapolis after receiving five noise ordinance violations in 2006, contesting the citations.

Nine months later, the Hennepin County District Court ruled the Minneapolis ordinance was unconstitutionally vague because police could subjectively gauge noise levels, possibly leading to inconsistent results. Now, city officials have to define how a noise ordinance could be fairly applied.

The ordinance that was overturned had been in effect since 1985 and stated that noise emanating from a bar shouldn’t disturb the “peace and quiet of nearby residents.” Penalties for violations included downgrading liquor licenses, prohibiting music and restricting the hours music could be played.

But Joel Fussy, the Minneapolis assistant city attorney who tried the case, said even though the ordinance was overturned, state noise ordinances still apply.

“There are state standards in the Pollution Control Act,” he said. “It sets out decibel readings at certain times of day and where they need to take the readings.”

Fussy said the state noise ordinance is more complicated than the Minneapolis one was, requiring police officers to take decibel-level measurements.

“The (state standards) are a little more complex,” he said. “They need people trained to take readings and measure against ambient noise. It’s a little more legwork to enforce.”

Robin Garwood, aide to Ward 2 Councilman Cam Gordon, said the state ordinance’s complexity has hindered police’s ability to regulate.

“We’re having a hard time getting police officers to enforce (the state ordinance),” Garwood said. “It’s somewhat understandable that a cop may not want to stand in the same place for a half hour to measure for a noise complaint.”

Garwood said Gordon’s office usually forwards noise complaints to the Minneapolis department of environmental management, which has been adjusting its hours to make enforcement more of a priority.

“The city’s environmental health inspectors don’t typically work nights,” Garwood said, but they’ve begun working more nights where noisier events are common.

Garwood said Seven Corners is one neighborhood he has heard noise complaints about.

“One of the things you’ve got on Seven Corners: it’s not just one bar, it’s a number of them on one corner,” Garwood said.

Dan Prozinski, a Seven Corners resident, said inspectors are dealing with the neighborhood’s noise problems, but relying on enforcement through inspectors instead of police has resulted in fewer repercussions for establishments that are overly noisy.

“The state guidelines are reasonable limits,” Prozinski said. “The city needs to rewrite their noise ordinance and come up with something enforceable by police at the scene.”

Tom Frame, an engineer with Minneapolis environmental management, said the city is revising many of its ordinances, including ones limiting noise from commercial spaces, which will likely be in place by the end of the year, Frame said.

Garwood said an example of trying to fill the void left by the overturned ordinance was when Sgt. Preston’s, which recently came under new ownership, sought to upgrade its license to allow live music.

The city worked out an agreement to tie its license to the number of live shows it can host every week, Garwood said.

“Right now (Sgt. Preston’s) can have live shows four times a week. If they get three noise citations, that automatically will drop to three, and three more after that it will drop to two,” Garwood said. “Even losing one night a week, it sounds like it’s going to have a pretty significant impact on their ability to make money.”

Prozinski said that even when an inspector can come out after hours, when bars are noisiest, the businesses can be tipped off about the inspection, reducing its sound levels for only that evening.

He said he thinks overturning the Minneapolis noise ordinance might impact other similar ordinances, including that for unruly assembly – essentially a house party ordinance.

Prozinski said it seems commercial organizations would be more apt to take legal action against a statute because they have the means, whereas students would be less able to challenge an unruly assembly violation.

Assistant City Attorney Joel Fussy said the decision isn’t likely to automatically impact the unruly assembly ordinance.

“This case wasn’t overly broad enough to affect others,” Fussy said.

Garwood said there will always be conflicts over noise near entertainment districts, but the key is striking a balance between residents and bars.

“It’s bound to have people sometimes stepping on each other’s toes,” he said. “That’s basically what the rules are about; it’s not at all about trying to prevent people from using their property, but trying to make sure it doesn’t have spillover effects on their neighbors.”