South Miami has agreed to pay $90,000 to a father who says his daughter’s 15th birthday party was brought to an abrupt end when a police officer handcuffed the dad and put him in the back of a patrol car.
The officer had come to the house in response to complaints about noise, but the charge against Julio Sanchez was later dismissed and he responded to the incident by suing the city for battery, false arrest and civil-rights violations.
The city recently agreed to settle the case after a federal judge decided that a section of the city’s noise law, which provided the original reason for the arrest, was unconstitutionally vague.
The law made any noise illegal if it would “annoy” anyone on a nearby street, sidewalk or adjacent building.
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U.S. District Judge Cecilia Altonaga struck down that part of the law in a Nov. 25 opinion.
Sanchez first filed a suit against the city in state court in February 2011. The case moved to federal court in November 2012.
Altonaga wrote in her ruling that, “the noise ordinance is clearly unconstitutional, and tellingly the city does not provide any argument addressing Mr. Sanchez’s contentions and analysis contained in the motion concerning the noise ordinance’s unconstitutionality.”
The incident took place in December 2009, when Sanchez hosted a quinceañera birthday party for his daughter. Family and friends gathered, and at about 9:30 p.m. South Miami police received a noise complaint, according to the lawsuit.
An officer arrived on the scene and asked Sanchez to turn the music down. His attorney, Ray Taseff, said Sanchez complied. At about 10:45 p.m., police received another complaint and another officer arrived and said the party had to end. Sanchez had a brief discussion with the officer, but eventually turned off the music. He then asked whether the party could continue inside and, according to Taseff, when Sanchez asked for the officer’s name and badge number he was arrested.
The officer handcuffed Sanchez and put him in a patrol car but later let him go.
“Everyone was astounded that this thing happened, because there was nothing loud or boisterous about the party,” Taseff said.
The case against Sanchez was dismissed in May 2010, and last September the city repealed section 15-81 of the ordinance — the section that the city claims Sanchez violated.
After repealing the law, the city’s lawyers asked for a summary judgment and a ruling in their favor claiming that even if section 15-81 was unconstitutional, the officer had “probable cause” to arrest Sanchez based on section 15-82 of the ordinance. The motion was eventually denied.
Section 15-81 said a resident would be in violation if they made loud noises that would “annoy” anyone on a nearby street, sidewalk or adjacent building. Section 15-82 is more specific and names radios, phonographs and other sound-making devices and says a resident would be in violation if their noise or music could be heard 100 feet away from a structure.
Mayor Philip Stoddard attempted to add more specific language about what “annoying” means and decibel level maximums at a commission meeting last August, but city leaders voted 3-2 to reject the proposed changes. He said that moving forward the city will attempt to look at the entire ordinance and do a “complete overhaul.”
“We will probably replace the subjective criteria with objective criteria, because one person’s annoying may not be annoying to someone else,” Stoddard said.
He added that he would also like for officers to be able to check noise levels with decibel readers or even take advantage of smartphone technology to measure the sounds.
Judge Altonaga also ruled that the ordinance violated the First Amendment’s protection of speech and expressive conduct, the Fourth Amendment’s protection against being unlawfully “seized” (arrested) without probable cause, and the Fourteenth Amendment’s protection against arbitrary governmental conduct.
“The police ruined my daughter’s party and robbed my family of the special memories that a quince party creates,” Sanchez said in a release from his lawyer. “I fought to protect our rights to make sure that no other family is treated the way the city treated mine.”