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Noisy neighbors are in season

There are many popular misconceptions when it comes to loud music.

Too much noise isn't allowed at any time of the day or night, people can report loud music anonymously and Merced County Sheriff's Department deputies can go onto private property to investigate complaints.

Deputy Tom MacKenzie, sheriff's department spokesman, said last weekend deputies handled 42 loud music calls from Friday night until Sunday evening. To date this year, they have handled 580 loud music calls and aren't even halfway through the year.

"Disturbing the peace can be loud music, using a jackhammer or mowing your lawn at 2 a.m.," MacKenzie said. "Weekends are typically worse especially in the summer due to juvenile parties and no school."

Merced County Sheriff Mark Pazin said county supervisors enacted a noise ordinance two years ago which helps deputies combat the problem. People can report noise disturbances anonymously, which reduces strife between neighbors.

Pazin said sheriff's deputies can't be the party police. He said the noise ordinance isn't a cure-all and deputies realize people may lose track of time and leave music too loud.

Cmdr. Floyd Higdon of the Merced Police Department said the rule of thumb on loud music generally is 10 p.m. but that's not absolute.

"It depends on how bad the disturbance is," Higdon said. "The first time we go to a house we advise them of a complaint. If we're called back, we will file a complaint with the District Attorney's Office."

MacKenzie said it's important for people to know they can be cited or booked for misdemeanor violations. Offending musical instruments and public address systems can be seized by authorities and it's up to the court if the items are returned.

MacKenzie said most people believe that they are allowed to play their music or make as much noise as they want until 10 p.m.

"It's not a curfew and a very big misunderstanding by the public," MacKenzie said. "The law prohibits someone from making so much noise that it disturbs the peace of another. There is no time frame when you're allowed to play music as loud as you want. It can be 1 a.m. in the morning or 1 p.m. in the afternoon, it makes no difference."

When law enforcement shows up at parties and family gatherings, they're usually called by neighbors who are tired of hearing music blasting from public address systems.

Parties that typically start on a Saturday afternoon sometimes last until 2 or 3 a.m. the next morning. When a deputy returns to a house for a second time, the owner will be cited for the loud music and whatever equipment is causing the noise will be confiscated.

"What most people don't understand is that when law enforcement shows up at your house and asks you to turn the music down or off, we're giving them a chance to comply that we're not required to give," MacKenzie said. "Most people are at parties to have a good time and don't want to cause any trouble and the Sheriff's Office understands that. By law we can arrest whoever is running the party or causing the noise complaint without giving a warning."

With the Fourth of July coming on a Friday this year, it is important for the public to know the laws governing loud music. There is no permit one can acquire allowing one to play music in violation of the law, MacKenzie said.

"Although some places in the county require you to obtain a permit to have amplified music, when told to turn it down from law enforcement you have to comply or risk being arrested," MacKenzie said.

Some people also believe that since the party is in their backyard, that law enforcement is not allowed on the property without permission or a search warrant. That's not true; if law enforcement receives a noise complaint and the party is still ongoing, deputies have an obligation to investigate the complaint and reason to be on the property with or without the owner's consent.

"Also a lot of party complaints are juvenile parties where alcohol is being consumed by minors. That in of itself is a crime which gives us the obligation to investigate," MacKenzie said.

Sgt. Paul Roseman said a majority of the disturbance calls are anonymous and people are reluctant to become personally involved. He said deputies are caught in the middle of these disturbances.

"People feel we are infringing on their God-given right to have a good time," Roseman said. "We have to be the voice of the general public and walk a fine line. Anytime the peace is disturbed, we have to deal with it."

Roseman said if music is audible from the street, it's too loud. People partying often don't realize it's 11:45 p.m.

Sgt. Steve Clinton said people sometimes don't realize when they get carried away and things get too loud. Loud party calls are very common and happen almost every night.

"You have to assume people don't realize music carries like it does," Clinton said. "People usually comply. If we keep coming back, it gets more enforcement action."

Higdon, the police department commander, said Merced police officers responded to 4,777 noise disturbance calls in the city of Merced during the 2006-2007 fiscal year. So far this fiscal year, which ends June 30, officers have answered 4,405 calls for service involving disturbances of the peace. The disturbances could involve loud music, barking dogs or cars racing down the street.

That's 8 percent of the total calls for service, Higdon said.

There's a direct correlation between noise disturbances and seasons, special occasions and family get-togethers, Roseman said. But the state Penal Code doesn't specify a time when noise is considered disturbing.

Associate Editor Doane Yawger can be reached at (209) 385-2485 or dyawger@mercedsun-star.com.

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