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County ordinance prohibiting squealing of tires not unconstitutionally vague, so traffic stop based on suspicion of violation of ordinance was reasonable

State v. Michael E. Mauermann, 2012AP2568-CR, District 4, 7/25/13; court of appeals decision (1-judge; ineligible for publication); case activity

Iowa County Ordinance § 600.08 provides that “[n]o person shall operate a motor vehicle so as to make any loud, disturbing or unnecessary noise in or about any public street, alley, park or private residence which may tend to annoy or disturb another by causing the tires of said vehicle to squeal, horn to blow excessively or motor to race excessively.” (¶11). Mauermann, who was stopped after an officer observed him accelerate through an intersection in a way the produced “a loud squealing of tires” (¶3), argued the ordinance is unconstitutionally vague under the applicable two-prong test, State v. Ruesch, 214 Wis. 2d 548, 561, 571 N.W.2d 898 (Ct. App. 1997), because it doesn’t sufficiently warn citizens about proscribed conduct and does not provide objective standards for those enforcing the law, primarily because it does not define “squeal.” (¶¶8-13, 16).

The court disagrees. In addition to pointing out that a law need not define every term it uses to avoid vagueness and that the other language in the ordinance gives meaning to the word “squeal” (¶¶13, 14), the court resorts to the dictionary definition of the term to address the gravamen of Mauermann’s claim:

¶15      The dictionary defines a squeal, in relevant part, as “a shrill sharp somewhat prolonged … noise.” Webster’s Third New International Dictionary Unabridged 2215 (1993). I note that under this definition the phrase “somewhat prolonged,” while not precisely quantifiable, distinguishes a squeal from such terms as “squeak” or “squawk.” The definition of “squawk” is “a loud harsh abrupt raucous outcry.” Webster’s Third New International Dictionary Unabridged 2215 (1993). The dictionary evidences a distinction in the difference of length between the two terms, specifically, “prolonged” versus “abrupt.”

¶16      This basic definitional distinction undermines the bulk of Mauermann’s arguments. This is because the thrust of Mauermann’s argument is that the ordinance is vague because its language does not allow the public or law enforcers to distinguish between lawful, abrupt tire squawks and prohibited, prolonged tire squeals. However, the test for vagueness “does not demand that the line between lawful and unlawful conduct be drawn with absolute clarity and precision.” [State v.Courtney, 74 Wis. 2d [705,] 710[, 247 N.W.2d 714 (1976)]. It is not sufficient to void a statute that there exist “particular instances of conduct the legal or illegal nature of which may not be ascertainable with ease.” Id. at 711.

¶17      Furthermore, the deputy’s testimony, taken as a whole, shows that he did not make a determination to stop Mauermann based on an idiosyncratic or otherwise incorrect standard. Instead, he concluded, based on his observations, that the tire noise was not a small squawk but instead was a long and loud squeal, indeed one that appeared to be deliberately long. This amounted to an objective determination that, under the circumstances, a reasonable person would find that Mauermann created a noise that was “loud, disturbing, or unnecessary,” and that “may tend to annoy or disturb another.”

¶18      It is certainly conceivable that a relatively small “squawk,” perhaps one created merely by accident, might be experienced by particularly sensitive listeners as a “loud, disturbing, or unnecessary” sound that is annoying. However, the ordinance is not void as unconstitutionally vague just because the subjective experiences of some listeners will vary.

Because the ordinance is not unconstitutionally vague, the officer’s stop of Mauermann was reasonable.

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