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As Long as We Remember...

November 2, 2007

Noisy Neighbors

Roy Meachum

With their eyes firmly fixed on the next (2009) elections, four Frederick aldermen stepped backwards on the noise issue. They let be known their views that neighbors could judge when someone gets too loud.

Alderman C. Paul Smith said the burden of proof should be on the city. He expressed a constitutional Fifth Amendment worry that a police citation would be tantamount to a guilty finding.

The accused (and simultaneously convicted) property owner would have to challenge the ticket by filing an appeal, which costs both time and money.

Alderman Smith was particularly bothered by the proposed law's defiance of the Fifth Amendment, which states: "No person shall be compelled in a criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty or property, without due process of law."

"I'm not sure (the proposed law) will fly past the due process test," he said, and I fully agree.

After all, the logical solution to the problem lies in a simple instrument that measures decibels of the noises it audits. During my first years in broadcasting, a very similar instrument was built into "the board."

We could see exactly the volume of sounds coming out of records, and ourselves. We speculated about taking a meter home, as a way of cutting off parental harangues. The idea came to nothing.

The ordinance, as written, is that it relies too much on those complaining. What may be comfortable to you could be totally inaudible to me. A falling out by neighbors might elevate to calling cops to complain about anything, especially noise.

When meter-equipped police reach the scene, if the clamor is not there, they should not have the power to act as jury and convict, especially when the judge's bench is occupied by those who complain.

That situation strikes me as un-American, totally, especially when the new law would offer no penalties to those who complain falsely.

Understanding the frustration of people robbed of sleep by racket from the next house or apartment, the suggested ordnance could leave the city and the complainers subject still to lawsuits.

"Oops! I'm sorry" does not cut it for folks "convicted" by a police ticket; they are, as Mr. Smith put it, deprived of rights supposedly guaranteed by the Constitution. He is, by the way, the only attorney on the Board of Aldermen.

If the law passes, as presented, it would be careless and against common sense not to expect a suit filed for every person cited.

If the decision is not made on their own, certainly attorneys must be expected on West Patrick. Operating on contingency, they might offer their services at no cost to those convicted without due process.

Being fully vested as an honorable member of Maryland's bar, Mr. Smith has tried to warn his non-lawyerly associates; if they don't listen, it would be their own tragic mistake, except any successful plaintiff would be paid-off by Frederick taxpayers.

In the end we could all lose because, from where I sit, too many city aldermen have been hanging around the mythical "back fence" and given into pressures generated more by gossip than real facts.

As I read it, the police have full powers to squash offenders who trample on our rights, as individual citizens.

Let cops do their job and we can be confident the chief and all his men will take care of those who bump volume up and yell out of sight, in the nights.

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