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Soothing the savage stereos

Blast your car radio in Miami Beach, and you might be in Judge Jeffrey Swartz's court, facing a choice: a $500 fine or 21/2 hours of opera.

By TAMARA LUSH
Published February 1, 2004

MIAMI BEACH - Michael Carreras didn't think his stereo was that loud.

After all, it was only the stock radio in his Jaguar, not a custom job with subwoofers in the trunk.

But one night in last month, he and some friends were cruising Collins Avenue at 5 a.m. on a Sunday, checking out girls and chatting about the nightclubs. The sunroof was open, the windows were down and they were listening to rapper 50 Cent on the CD player.

Next thing he knew, a police officer was handing him a ticket for violating the city's strict noise ordinance. In Miami Beach, if cops can hear your stereo from 100 feet away, they can charge you.

The officer told Carreras he would have a choice: pay a $500 fine, or listen to opera.

"Opera?" Carreras wondered. No way, he thought.

But it was no joke.

Last week, the 32-year-old club promoter found himself listening to La Traviata in Judge Jeffrey Swartz's chambers.

It was opera as punishment, for 21/2 hours.

"You impose your music on me, and I'm going to impose my music on you," Swartz told Carreras.

It may seem odd, but this is a city where nude beaches, supermodels in Ferraris and rollerblading transvestites are commonplace. The exotic atmosphere extends to the Miami Beach courthouse, where the unusual is the norm.

Swartz has been on the bench 91/2 years, the only judge on this barrier island.

He's seen it all.

People showing up for arraignments in teeny bikinis. Folks coming to early-morning court dates straight from the after-hours clubs, still sweaty and dressed in miniskirts and open shirts. Women in low-cut tops carrying Fendi bags, illegal aliens from every part of the world and octogenarian shoplifters.

Opera punishment has barely caused a stir.

Swartz's opera obsession began when his ex-wife dragged him "kicking and screaming" to the Florida Grand Opera about six years ago. Last year, he bought season tickets.

"It's an acquired taste," acknowledges Swartz. "Like brussels sprouts."

Swartz hails from Ohio but has adapted to the South Florida lifestyle. He doesn't wear a tie under his black judicial robe, and enjoys a good bacon cheeseburger, although he worries about his cholesterol level. He peppers his conversation with some Spanish (he's dating a Venezuelan woman) and Yiddish (he's Jewish).

He also knows who P-Diddy is, partly because he has a teenage daughter but mostly because the rap impresario ended up in his courtroom for illegally operating a scooter on South Beach last year.

Swartz, a young-looking 54, loves to tell stories and crack jokes, off the bench and on. He figures if he tries to make people laugh they will be more comfortable in his courtroom. "Court doesn't have to be an unpleasant experience," he said.

It also breaks up the monotony of misdemeanors; he sometimes handles up to 250 cases in a day.

His courtroom is a little Jerry Springer and a little People's Court.

On a recent day, a man was cited for running a stop sign. He told officers he wasn't wearing his glasses. Swartz asked the man if he had new glasses.

Yes, the man said.

"Put them on, and turn around," Swartz said.

He did, and a bailiff held up a sign that said "Applause." Everyone in the courtroom chuckled and clapped.

Swartz got the idea for opera punishment about a year ago as he was driving around Miami.

At a stoplight a young guy in another vehicle was playing his stereo so loud Swartz's car windows shook.

"It drove me crazy," the judge recalled in an interview in his chambers. "I am still at a loss as to why they need all that bass."

That was about a year ago. Around that time, Miami Beach officials were trying to crack down on so-called quality-of-life violations such as urinating in public, drinking on the street and loud music.

Noisy stereos are an especially big problem here, said Miami Beach police Officer Robert Hernandez. Sometimes they're so so loud they set off car alarms.

Now, giant electronic billboards on Ocean Drive warn drivers: "No Loud Music!"

So far, about 100 people cited for violating the noise ordinance have chosen opera over the fine. They save money and the charge is dismissed.

Swartz handles noise cases on Mondays, and usually has up to 10 people in his chambers listening to a boom box that sits on the floor.

Bailiff Alain Rodriguez - he has become an opera fan, thanks to Swartz - plays DJ. He also makes sure no one talks, eats, uses a cell phone or falls asleep.

It's a small office on the second floor. Two large windows overlook busy Washington Street, though gazing out the window is not allowed. The punishment requires facing Rodriguez and the boom box, which plays loud enough that people in the hallway can hear.

A desk takes up most of the room and Rodriguez drags in as many chairs as needed.

Mostly, everyone stares straight ahead, their arms folded. They fiddle with their watches, yawn, sigh.

"Bravo," Rodriguez says after an aria is finished. Typically he is met with icy stares.

Swartz usually visits during a break from the bench so he can explain the opera. On this day, La Traviata is on the boom box, and Swartz sweeps into the room in his black robe.

"It's like everything else," Swartz said. "It's about love, betrayal and death."

Carreras grinned at Swartz's words. Those are pretty common themes on South Beach, too.

And Carreras even enjoyed the music and tapped his foot during the ultimo finale.

"I think it's pretty relaxing," he said.

Swartz chooses the music based on whatever is playing at the Florida Grand Opera. Romeo and Juliet is coming, so it will be playing in his courtroom soon.

Sometimes, people prefer the fine to opera. Fine with Swartz. He's not looking for opera converts.

"You can listen to whatever you want to listen to," he said.

Michael Smuclovsky would have paid the fine, if he had the cash.

Smuclovsky, 20, was listening to rap in his Mustang on Collins Avenue when he was ticketed. He showed up in Swartz's courtroom in a white tank top, leather jacket and baggy jeans.

"What are you doing this afternoon?" Swartz asked with a grin.

"Planning on driving down to the Keys."

"No, no, no. I have something far more relaxing for you. Listening to one of my favorite operas."

Smuclovsky paused. He pushed up the sleeve of his jacket, revealing a tattoo that said "Me Against the World." He sneered.

"Are you serious?"

Smuclovsky is not an opera lover. But he's familiar with it. "I'm forced to listen to it in the car with my dad," he said later.

"But that's what earplugs are for."

- Tamara Lush can be reached at 727 893-8612 or at lush@sptimes.com

[Last modified February 1, 2004, 06:57:02]


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