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Blunder muzzles noise policing
Outdated warning forms give offenders in 2006 a free pass.
By SARAH MISHKIN
Published July 19, 2007
TAMPA - The city is wiping the slate clean for those accused of violating Tampa's noise ordinance between April and December 2006, following a judge's ruling last week that the police warning forms omitted information required by city ordinance.
In February 2006, the city instituted harsher penalties for nightclub managers who played music too loudly. The ordinance required that written warnings indicate the maximum decibel allowed and tell violators to turn down the sound within five minutes.
Unfortunately, forms used by the Tampa Police Department did not include that information, said spokeswoman Laura McElroy. Judges last week threw out cases against Jai Lalwani and Richard Mackizer, managers at Club Fuel, because of the technicality.
"It's a brand-new ordinance, and so when you're implementing it, there are kinks to work out," McElroy said.
She said the city "basically just threw out" those warnings issued before December 2006, when the form was updated. McElroy said she could not estimate how many warnings the department tossed.
Club managers warned twice under the strengthened law can face criminal charges, and, if convicted, could spend up to 60 days in jail. Their clubs could face liquor license suspension.
Assistant City Attorney David Shobe said he advised police to include information about the permitted noise level when the department reviewed its forms at year end. He said the agency's legal unit is typically responsible for updating forms.
He said the judge's rulings last week prompted the city to review other warnings issued between April and December. The city realized that other warnings could likewise fail a court test.
"Once we got that ruling from the court, it seemed pretty clear what the court was going to require," he said.
Shobe said he did not know how many people were brought to court on the basis of the faulty warnings, but he said it "wasn't that many." He said it would have been up to defense lawyers to bring up any problem they had with the forms.
Stewart Skipper, former manager of the Amphitheater, was arrested in September 2006 after receiving two warnings. He pleaded not guilty and successfully completed a pretrial intervention program by doing community service work.
His attorney, Mark Basurto, said he planned to argue that noise readings could be unfairly affected by sound from surrounding clubs.
Council member John Dingfelder expressed frustration that the charges against Club Fuel's managers were dismissed over a technicality, but he hoped club owners understood the city's determination to crack down on Ybor City noise violations.
"That's really a shame, that it worked out that way and they got off on a technicality," he said. "Next time, we're going to dot our i's and cross our t's, and someone's going to go to jail."