Beat the Rap

Mark Andresen

Tell Robert Garcia that his music is too loud for Balch Springs and that he's probably eligible for a $227 ticket, and he'll tell you, simply, "That sucks."

After navigating his '80s-something Nissan through the drive-in lane at a freeway-side Captain D's, the 22-year-old store clerk pulls his thumping, pulsing, window-rattling ride into a parking spot near the front of the fast-food joint. Rapper Ja Rule provides the foreground music as Garcia tucks into his fish. "I stay over in Dallas, but I'm over here a lot," Garcia says, turning down the music to allow a few moments of conversation. "Really, I'm gonna get a ticket?"

Since mid-December, the answer is yes. Balch Springs police Chief Ed Morris says his officers have written about a dozen loud-car-stereo tickets over the past four weeks. "When you can hear them coming down the road, the whole car just shaking, and you're inside your house and you can still hear it...Well, we've decided to circle the wagons and try to do something about it."

The new code in the southeast Dallas County suburb, which sets out fines ranging from $150 to $500 plus sizable court costs, outlaws car-stereo volumes "that can be felt by persons inside another enclosed vehicle, residence or business." That was certainly true of one recently ticketed offender who drove through an apartment parking lot and set off a chorus of car alarms. The test in the Balch Springs code, which is up to the officer's discretion, is whether "the level or volume of such sounds or vibrations is unreasonable and offensive to persons of ordinary sensibilities."

Hip-hop-lover Garcia apparently has extraordinary sensibilities, because as he says, "If it isn't loud, it isn't very good."

On its face, Balch Springs' ordinance is content neutral. Extra-loud Beethoven is just as much an offense as sonic-level Dr. Dre. But Morris says complaints of senior citizens blasting Tchaikovsky are not what prompted changes in the city's code.

"The kinds of complaints we've had are people go to the car wash and someone's got their stereo blasting. The words coming out aren't the kind you'd want your daughter to hear. Or someone stops at the gas station, opens up their door and there's all this foul language coming out. The lyrics are filthy."

The offender, of course, is beat-heavy rap and hip-hop, in which eight of the current top 10-selling albums on are marked with warning labels for explicit lyrics, and one of the two exceptions is a sanitized version of The Eminem Show. "I think people are getting tired," Morris says. "What they're doing is forcing their music on someone else. They are forcing their thoughts and feelings on other people."

In looking around the region for ordinances on which to model Balch Springs', Morris says the city had a choice between installing a strict distance limit and simply using a "sensible person" test. Grand Prairie, for instance, says music is criminally loud if people are offended at a distance of 50 feet. Morris says one can be offended--and alarmed--if the car sitting next to him at a stoplight is blasting and rumbling, so distance limits aren't very effective.

"We've had a lot of complaints about people sitting at a light, and a car will pull up to them and shake their windows. It makes old people nervous," Morris says.

At present, only suburban jurisdictions in the area have codes covering car-stereo noise. Dallas' code does not specifically outlaw loud car systems, but officers can write tickets under the "disturbing the peace" section of the state code if they see fit, says Robert Miklos, the city's lead prosecutor. "We see some of those." Another section of the city code that covers everything from crowing roosters to rattling trash cans can be applied to car-stereo noise heard up the curb, across the lawn and all the way inside a house, Miklos says.

Because disturbing the peace tickets cover everything from fighting and swearing in public to shooting guns, it is impossible to tell from city statistics how prevalent enforcement in Dallas has been. If a recent town hall meeting in Northwest Dallas is any test, it appears enforcement has been loose. A number of residents in the Midway Road area complained to city officials that they were fed up with loud car stereos blaring from the parking lots of several apartment complexes.

Frank Herndon, manager of the Earmark Car Audio store in Plano, says car-stereo ordinances have been around for at least a decade. "The big change would be if they actually enforced them," he says.

Advancements in speakers and floorboard-rumbling subwoofers have made for a steady escalation in power and noise, he says. "The equipment upgrades every six months." A $2,000 system cranked up to "10" produces about 140 decibels, Herndon says. "That's like sticking your head in a jet engine...I believe a new record has been set at 177 decibels."

In the affluent northern suburbs, Herndon says, police have moved beyond worrying about mere car-stereo noise. The most sophisticated systems today come with in-dash videos, and police in some jurisdictions have been issuing tickets to drivers who are distracted by the screens. "Now," Herndon says, "you can be talking on the phone, watching a video and driving at the same time."

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