September 2, 2004

Council Passes Noise Amendment

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The Common Council passed an amendment to Ithaca’s noise ordinance last night that will extend police officers’ authority to issue noise violation citations without a third party complainant. The amendment passed by a vote of 7-2, with Alderpersons Michael Taylor ’05 (D-4th Ward) and Gayraud Townsend ’05 (D-4th Ward) casting the only dissenting votes. Michelle Berry (D-2nd Ward) was absent.

The amendment adds the text “or recklessly creates the risk thereof” to sections six and seven of the ordinance, which define noise violations made by sound speakers and parties. The change will allow police officers to exercise judgement and issue citations without a complaint being filed. This language was already in section four, which deals with general “unreasonable noise,” and several alderpersons cited a movement toward a more consistent code as one of their reasons for voting in favor of the motion.

But Taylor said that because the text is already contained in section four, the amendment is mostly a symbolic expression.

“I think this is a big statement that this council would be making. I think it’s a statement that would be saying that [the Common] Council thinks it’s right and just for police officers — not neighbors — to determine whether noise becomes a nuisance. Moreover, by making this statement, Common Council is in fact encouraging police to become complainants,” Taylor said.

Other members of the council, however, said that the amendment will allow officers to enforce the noise ordnance even when neighbors who may be disturbed are frightened to come out and file a formal complaint. Townsend attributed this to “being neighborly” instead of fear, but several members of the council spoke against this reasoning.

“I know from experience that there are persons who are are indeed afraid to call the police because of past cases of retribution,” said Alderperson Mary Tomlan (D-3rd Ward).

Speaking on the point of officers’ use of discretion in deciding whether noise is in violation of the code, Alderperson Joel Zumoff (D-3rd Ward) said that he considered it preferable that the police, not citizens, make the judgement as to what constitutes a violation.

“If the argument is that it is too subjective for police officers to make this determination, it seems to me it’s a lot more subjective for individual members of the public to make the determination … It seems to me that it’s a lot easier to train a relatively small group of people to make a very consistent subjective decision than it is to leave it to the whims of lots of people in the public,” Zumoff said.

He added that he supported officers using their discretion whether or not a complaint was filed.

Taylor and Thompson both raised concerns that the amendment will encourage officers to use their powers inappropriately to issue citations in cases where no noise violation has actually happened.

Thompson recalled a personal account in which an officers broke up a party appropriately but then crossed the street and dispersed a group of fewer than ten students, including Thompson, who he said were not making any noise.

“I personally think that was the police officer exploiting his power in that situation … Giving the police certain power in that regard is not right, and I feel that too often you’ll find that some officers will use that and exploit it … I saw it with my own eyes,” he said.

Archived article by uval Shavit
Sun Staff Writer