Have you been threatened with a noise citation? Here are some suggestions on how to handle the situation. This is not intended to be legal advice, but instead general guidance on dealing with HPD and the municipal court system. The GHEC PAC thanks attorney Jonathan Landers for providing many of the points made here.
(1) First, cooperate fully with police. Do not be rude, abusive, or sarcastic. Know that many HPD officers themselves do not like the new noise ordinance, but have been forced in to the position of enforcing a “bad law.” In Texas, the police can arrest you, WITHOUT A WARRANT, for certain “offenses against public order and decency,” which includes noise violations. In fact, arrests for violating the noise ordinance have already occurred twice in Houston that the PAC is aware of, and regardless of your issues with the new noise ordinance, it is not worth going to jail for. Moreover, the issuing officer may be a witness at your court date, and you do not want him/her remembering you as being difficult.
(2) Ask the police officer whether there was an official complaint or if the police officer is issuing the citation on his own. If there was a complaint, try to get information from the police officer of where the complaint originated–i.e., from which direction. That will help you identify problematic areas in the future. HPD will not disclose who specifically called in the complaint, but you may have a chance to meet that person in court. Ask the police officer what steps he/she has taken to investigate the noise complaint and what he observed. Did he/she visit the complainant’s house? What did he/she observe while there? Did he/she take a dB meter reading? Tell the officer of what proactive steps you have taken to control noise; this may not get you out of a ticket, but may help you demonstrate that you are not willfully violating the law.
(3) If you are issued a ticket, know that that is not the same as your being found guilty–remember, “innocent until proven guilty!” Your ticket will list a court date on which you or your attorney must appear at Houston Municipal Court. At that time, the prosecutor may attempt to convince you to enter a plea (deferred adjudication) and/or pay a reduced fine. While you are free to agree to deferred adjudication at that time, note that under the new noise ordinance, a deferred adjudication may prevent you from obtaining certain noise permits from the City of Houston that allow you to exceed certain decibel limits. Thus, if you have any intention to apply for and/or retain any such noise permit in the future, agreeing to deferred adjudication may not be in your best interests. Moreover, under the vague new noise ordinance, you may in fact NOT BE GUILTY. Although it may be tempting to agree to a plea agreement to “get it out of the way,” you are not required to “bargain” with the prosecutor’s office. Instead, it may be best to request a full jury trial. Although this sounds scary, the burden will be on the complainant, the police, and the prosecutor to prove that you violated the law; you DO NOT have to prove that you were innocent. A jury trial will require significant coordination from the complainant, the issuing officer, and the court system, which may limit the state’s ability to meet its burden of proving your guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt.” That means you have a greater chance for your ticket to be dismissed. Another option to be aware of is a “bench trial,” or “judge trial.” Judge trials concentrate more power into the hands of the judge, and thus, make it more difficult for your ticket to be dismissed.
(4) Your jury trial date may be rescheduled many times, and each of these times may necessitate you to go down to the municipal court. Although a drain on your schedule, do not be discouraged by this if you believe you are innocent! Also, the rescheduling process may move your trial date to many months from the date of the alleged violation (6 months to a year is not unusual), so hang in there for the long haul. If/when you go to trial, familiarize yourself with the noise ordinance (Chapter 30 of the City of Houston Code of Ordinances) so that you know what the state has to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, to convict you.
(5) If all of this sounds overwhelming for you, know that there are many attorneys in Houston who specialize in municipal citations and who will help defend your case for a nominal fee of between $75-$125 (sometimes less). In many cases, you will not have to step foot in the courthouse if an attorney represents you on your behalf. Of course, this is $75-$125 you shouldn’t have to spend if the ticket was wrongly issued, but once a ticket has been issued, you still have to “deal with it.” In the meantime the GHEC PAC will continue to work with the City to get a fairer, more objective noise ordinance and even enforcement by HPD!