Statesville Noise Ordinance Unconstitutionally Vague

I was driving in Statesville, Iredell, North Carolina when I was pulled over and arrested for a noise ordinance.

The local noise ordinance for which I was arrested is unconstitutionally vague.

Noise Ordinance

The Virginia Supreme Court today struck down Virginia Beach’s noise ordinance because it is unconstitutionally vague.  The ordinance prohibits “any unreasonably loud, disturbing and unnecessary noise in the city” that “disturb[s] or annoy[s] the quiet, comfort or repose of reasonable persons.”

“We are pleased with the Court’s decision to strike down this law,” said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Kent Willis. “Virginia Beach is free to control noise, but it must do so in a way that is reasonable and precise so as not leave residents and business owners guessing whether or not they are violating the law.”

The case, Tanner v. Virginia Beach, was filed by Bradley Tanner and Eric Williams, owners of The Peppermint Beach Club in Virginia Beach, who were frequently cited under the ordinance.  The owners presented a broad range of evidence to show that the ordinance is vague and unevenly enforced.  Police witnesses admitted that they use their own subjective judgment to decide if someone is violating the ordinance.

“The ordinance was not even clear to law enforcement officials,” added Willis.  “The vagueness of the law left it wide open for abuse by police who were free to interpret it differently depending on whom they were applying the law to.”

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It is a basic principle of due process that an enactment is void for vagueness if its prohibitions are not clearly defined. Vague laws offend several important values.

First, because we assume that man is free to steer between lawful and unlawful conduct, we insist that laws give the person of ordinary intelligence a reasonable opportunity to know what is prohibited, so that he may act accordingly. Vague laws may trap the innocent by not providing fair warning.

Second, if arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement is to be prevented, laws must provide explicit standards for those who apply them.

A vague law impermissibly delegates basic policy matters to policemen, judges, and juries for resolution on an ad hoc and subjective basis, with the attendant dangers of arbitrary and discriminatory application.

Third, but related, where a vague statute “abut[s] upon sensitive areas of basic First Amendment freedoms,” it “operates to inhibit the exercise of [those] freedoms.”

Uncertain meanings inevitably lead citizens to “‘steer far wider of the unlawful zone’ . . . than if the boundaries of the forbidden areas were clearly marked.”…We held, in part, that the ordinance was impermissibly vague because enforcement depended on the completely subjective standard of “annoyance.”

Statesville Noise Ordinance Unconstitutionally Vague

Sec. 7.5-21. Authority.

This article is adopted pursuant to the authority granted to the Iredell County Board of Commissioners in North Carolina General Statute 153A-133 and for the purpose of regulating the production or emission of noises, amplified speech, music, or other sounds that tend to annoy, disturb, or affect the health and well-being of the citizens of the county.

(Ord. of 12-19-89, § 1)

Sec. 7.5-22. Loud, disturbing and unnecessary noises prohibited.

The creation of any unreasonably loud, disturbing and unnecessary noise in Iredell County is prohibited. Noise of such character, intensity, and duration as to be detrimental to the health, safety, or welfare of any individual is prohibited.

(Ord. of 12-19-89, § 2; Ord. of 5-6-97)

Sec. 7.5-23. Prohibited acts.

Without limiting in any way the provisions of section 7.5-22 above, the following acts, among others, are declared to be loud, disturbing and unnecessary noises in violation of this article. It is expressly provided, however, that the following enumeration shall not be considered exclusive. Specifically prohibited acts include:

(1) Radios, phonographs, etc. The playing of any radio, phonograph, jukebox, piccolo, or other music recordation playing or amplification device, or any musical instrument in such manner or with such volume as to annoy or disturb any person or in such manner as to annoy or disturb the quiet, comfort, or repose of any person.

The Florida Supreme Court rejected the state noise law as unconstitutional: “Florida’s law telling drivers who blast their car stereos to turn down the volume unreasonably restricts free speech rights, the Florida Supreme Court ruled Thursday.”
The City of Richmond noise ordinance was struck down by the Richmond General District Court as being too vague and ambiguous. The Virginia Supreme Court held ‘the reasonable person standard’ to be a subjective and vague standard in a criminal noise ordinance and therefore violating the constitutional due process standard.

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