Court of Appeals Upholds Syracuse Noise Ordinance Against Constitutional Vagueness Challenge

In People v Stephens (No. 171) previewed here, the Court of Appeals upheld the validity of the City of Syracuse’s Noise Control Ordinance prohibiting the creation of “unnecessary noise” heard more than 50 feet from a car on a public road against a challenge by a criminal defendant that the ordinance was unconstitutionally vague under the Court’s seminal vagueness precedent in People v New York Trap Rock Corp. (57 NY2d 371 [1982]).  What distinguished the Syracuse Noise Ordinance from the one struck down in Trap Rock, the Court held, is the standard by which the noise is judged.  In the Syracuse Noise Ordinance, the “unnecessary noise” only violates the law’s proscriptions if it “‘annoys, disturbs, injures or endangers the comfort, repose, health, peace or safety of a reasonable person of normal sensibilities, or which causes injury to animal life or damage to property or business.'” (Opn, at 2 [emphasis in original]).  In contrast, the noise ordinance struck down in Trap Rock only judged based on what “a person” thought, a standard that could be arbitrarily applied “based solely on the malice or animosity of a cantankerous neighbor.”  (Opn, at 8).

Thus, the addition of the “reasonable person of normal sensibilities” standard is what saved the Syracuse Noise Ordinance against the constitutional challenge, the Court held.  The reasonable person standard insulates the public from violations based on reports of cantankerous or noise-sensitive neighbors that were found unconstitutionally vague in Trap Rock.  So, if your municipality has a noise control ordinance, be sure that it judges what is unnecessary noise by what a reasonable person of normal sensibilities would find annoying.

The Court of Appeals’ opinion can be found here.

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