The Florida Supreme Court struck down a state law banning drivers from playing loud music in their cars because the provision unreasonably restricted freedom of expression and was overbroad.

In 2007 and 2008, respectively, Clearwater attorney Richard Catalano and New Port Richey resident Alexander Schermerhorn received noncriminal traffic infractions for allegedly violating Florida Statute section 316.3045.

Under the provision, drivers and passengers are prohibited from amplifying sound that is "plainly audible at a distance of 25 feet or more from the motor vehicle." The distance was 100 feet until a 2005 amendment.

Some exceptions to the law are obvious — communications devices used by law enforcement, and horn or warning devices found on other vehicles — because they promote safety.

Other exceptions aren’t so obvious. The law allows those using a motor vehicle for business or political purposes to disregard the volume limits so long as they do so "in the normal course of conducting such business."

Neither Catalano or Schermerhorn fell within the exceptions and entered not guilty pleas. They argued the statute was unconstitutional and moved to dismiss. Pinellas County Court denied their motions.

But Catalano and Schermerhorn didn’t stop there. The court permitted them to change their pleas to no contest and reserve the right to appeal. On appeal, their cases were consolidated.

Pinellas Circuit Court, acting in its appellate capacity, had the first opportunity to weigh in on the law and reversed. It relied on a 1996 decision by the Second District Court of Appeal that stood in conflict with a 1998 decision out of the Fifth DCA. The circuit court held the "plainly audible" standard was facially vague and overbroad.

The Second DCA stood by its 1996 decision and refused to hear the case because the circuit afforded due process to both parties and didn’t depart from the essential requirements of law.

But the Second DCA also acknowledged the conflict between districts and certified a question to the Florida Supreme Court: "Is the ‘plainly audible’ language … unconstitutionally vague, overbroad, arbitrarily enforceable or impinging on free speech rights?"

On the question of vagueness, Florida’s high court didn’t find the statutory language problematic. That is, it adequately notified people of common intelligence of the proscribed conduct. The court found Catalano and Schermerhorn’s argument concerning inconsistent enforcement irrelevant.

"This is not a standard that calls for police officers to judge whether sound is excessive, raucous, disturbing, or offensive; if the officer can hear the amplified sound more than twenty-five feet from its source, the individual has violated the statute," Justice Jorge Labarga wrote for the court.

The statute is, however, overbroad. The U.S. Supreme Court already held the First Amendment protects a person’s right to play loud music in public. The question was whether the statute reasonably restricted the time, place and manner of that protected speech. And if the restriction is based on the content of the speech, the state must justify the statute with a compelling interest.

Because the statute contained exceptions for business and political purposes — exceptions based on the purpose of the sound emanating from a vehicle — the statute was not content-neutral.

The compelling interests, according to the state, were traffic safety and protecting the public from loud noise. While traffic safety is a state interest, it isn’t compelling, and how the statute actually advanced that purported interest through the statute wasn’t clear to the court.

The state argued noncommercial vehicles were more dangerous because there were so many more of them than commercial vehicles. But the court found this argument failed to explain how a political vehicle blaring political messages is less dangerous than a noncommercial vehicle blaring a religious message.

Therefore, the statute is overbroad and an unreasonable restriction on the First Amendment.

The court refused to salvage any remaining portions through the doctrine of severability.

"In striving to show great deference to the Legislature, this court will not legislate and sever provisions that would effectively expand the scope of the statute’s intended breadth," Labarga wrote.