THE LAW OF NOISE PROTECTION IN CALIFORNIA
As discussed in our companion article on legal actions based on private or public nuisance, noise pollution caused by a nearby business or neighbor, if prolonged and extreme enough, can give rise to a civil action for nuisance and an injunction can be sought.
Additionally, California has other remedies available for the victim of noise. This article shall discuss what remedies are available for the victim of excessive noise. It shall be assumed that the reader has also read the article on public and private nuisance.
The Basic Law:
- California Noise Laws. Health and Safety Code 46000. ... (f) All Californians are entitled to a peaceful and quiet environment without the intrusion of noise which may be hazardous to their health or welfare. (g) It is the policy of the state to provide an environment for all Californians.
While this law establishes public policy, and enables a series of public laws which apply to the public in general, it is less useful for the individual seeking redress for a noisy neighbor. Nevertheless, if in Small Claims, it is a useful law to cite to remind the court as to the underlying policy in this State.
- Local Ordinances: Cities and counties often pass various local laws that establish some protection for their citizens from excessive or untimely noise and a search on line will normally provide the details of the local ordinance applicable to your locale. Most local ordinances include "quiet times." A typical ordinance prohibits loud noises between 11 p.m. and 7 or 8 a.m. on weekdays and 11 p.m. or midnight until 8 to 10 a.m. on Sundays and holidays. It is worthwhile to check your local ordinance before making formal complaint so that you can cite the law.
- Tenants’ Rights: A tenant’s right to quiet and peaceful enjoyment of his property is generally limited to what are called reasonable limits, and local government ordinances also regulate nuisance rights. Usually, if a tenant is making excessive noise beyond what is “normally acceptable” under the Noise Guidelines, then he or she likely violates the city’s nuisance ordinance. (As an example, in Glendora, a tenant’s noise level is restricted by the time of day. From 7 p.m. to 10 p.m., a tenant cannot make noise exceeding 50 decibels, and any noise more than 50 decibels is considered a nuisance.) Other cities and counties have similar ordinances for the most part and should be available on line.
To enforce rights to peaceful enjoyment against noisy neighbors, tenants must notify their landlords of the excessive noise. Tenants can also contact local law enforcement and advise their landlords after contacting the local authorities. Landlords have an affirmative duty under the law to ensure their noisy tenants do not continue violating the local nuisance regulations or interfere with their other tenants' right to peaceful enjoyment. It is less clear that the landlord has a duty to seek a nuisance action against a noisy neighbor who is not a tenant of the building. If enough tenants complain, most landlords will seriously consider it, but note that will cost the landlord thousands of dollars in legal fees.
If a landlord does not correct the violation, a tenant may have a right to terminate his or her lease after providing written notice of termination and may also have an action for damages for breach of the lease.
- Penal Code: Under the guidelines of Section 415 of the California Penal Code, it is illegal for any resident to knowingly create loud and unreasonable noises as a means of disturbing another. Those convicted of violating this law face a maximum of 90 days in jail and/or a maximum fine of $400.00. Unnecessary noise can be a violation at any time.
What is excessive can be altered by locale and time of day. If one owns a home next to a steel mill the definition of excessive as applied by the police or court will not match that of a residential property next to a fishing destination. Reasonable criteria is normally utilized by the courts and most police will not take a claim seriously unless it strikes them as clearly unreasonable.
Everyone, including the court and police, expects noise to be part of the urban environment and a temporary amount of noise, such as caused by a New Year’s party or a brief bit of construction, is simply not going to be taken very seriously by the powers that be. You may get them to give a warning to the neighbor or landlord, but little more. They will not be going to jail or paying you damages.
But a continuing or repeated violation of reasonable noise levels is another matter and relief will normally be available. Proof of the nature of the noise can be critical, and this writer knew a determined and angry elderly woman who went to Small Claims court claiming a nuisance. The judge, looking at the frail old lady, was skeptical, especially when the neighbor explained that she took care of her nephews for a disabled sister and that “boys will be boys,” and that the elderly woman was simply “cranky.” The judge was clearly planning to dismiss the matter when the elderly woman pulled out a tape recorder and played a minute of crashing, screaming, and clearly obnoxious noise that shook the court room. Then she showed the judge she had the volume of the recorder only half way up. “Every weekday, all day.” She simply said.
The judge, a father himself, glared at the defendant, told her that she had to control her nephews and be a good neighbor and that children without control were “animals.” He ordered them to return to court in a month if the plaintiff felt the noise was not controlled. That ended the matter.
That said, the average plaintiff has an uphill battle demonstrating just how destructive excess noise can be since it is temporary for the most part. Experts can come to court to demonstrate scientifically the amount of noise but that is an expensive process and most people merely complain and suffer.
A tough letter from a lawyer can help at times but cost money and an actual filing of a civil complaint can be quite expensive. It also will cement ill will with a neighbor. That should be a last resort after complaints to landlords, the neighbor and the local police have not borne fruit.