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State of New Jersey v. Clarksburg Inn

375 N.J. Super. 624, 868 A.2d 1120 (App. Div. 2005)

ORDINANCES; NOISE—A noise ordinance need not specify maximum decibel levels to pass a constitutional challenge and general language barring noise that is audible 100 feet from the building from which it emanates is good enough.

An inn challenged a municipal noise ordinance that prohibited any loud, unnecessary or unusual noise of such character, intensity or duration that it is detrimental to the life, health or welfare of any individual. The inn was in a residential neighborhood. It had live bands and disc jockeys playing from time-to-time. Several neighbors complained and the municipality issued a summons for a violation of the ordinance. The municipality and inn owner reached an agreement whereby the municipality agreed to defer prosecution for ninety days if the music level was lowered, no live bands or disc jockeys would be permitted to play outside, and no noise would be audible from a distance of one hundred feet from the inn. The inn still violated the ordinance and the agreement. It was issued another summons. The municipal court found the inn guilty and the owner appealed to the Law Division, which affirmed. The owner then appealed to the Appellate Division, which also affirmed. In its appeal, the inn owner claimed that the ordinance was unconstitutional and unenforceable because it was impermissibly vague. It claimed that a noise ordinance must contain objective criteria to be enforceable. For example, it argued that an ordinance should set a certain maximum decibel level for noise. The owner claimed that the ordinance’s use of words “loud,” “unnecessary,” and “unusual” was subjective, and that the phrases “likely to annoy,” “disturb,” etc. were too vague. The Court disagreed. It noted that, with respect to noise ordinances, it is difficult to formulate specific and precise definitions of the prohibited conduct. To be constitutional, an ordinance needs to be clear, specific, and reasonable, but general language is acceptable if it is sufficient to notify the public of the conduct that is prohibited. In this case, the ordinance did not prohibit all noise, but only prohibited noise that was audible at a distance of one hundred feet from the building from which it emanated. The Court disagreed with the owner’s claims that in order to pass a constitutional challenge, a noise ordinance must specify maximum decibel levels. It noted that other noise ordinances without specified decibel levels had been upheld even after the technology for measuring decibel levels was available.

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