February 27, 2011

Canaan biker vindicated, wins exhaust case

By Leslie Bridgers lbridgers@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

WATERVILLE -- When Gordon Austin got a ticket in July for having loud exhaust pipes on his Harley-Davidson, he vowed to fight the charge. This month, he made good on that promise.

On Feb. 7, Waterville District Court Judge Beth Dobson found Austin not guilty of operating a motorcycle with excessive exhaust noise -- a law that was amended a week before he got his ticket.

Austin, who lives in Canaan, was one of 16 people cited for loud exhaust in Waterville under the new law and among about 160 cited in the state. Most of them have paid a fine, but Austin contends, because of the subjectivity of the law, if more people fought the charge like he did, they would have a good chance of being vindicated.

Acting as his own attorney, Austin said he told the judge that Waterville police Officer Dennis Picard had seen him riding his motorcycle around the city nearly every day last summer before ticketing him on July 23.

That was the week Chief Joseph Massey said the department would start cracking down on loud exhaust systems.

The law previously said an exhaust system may not be modified with the intent to make it louder. The change that took effect July 12 left out the word "intent" and says the vehicle's original muffler may not be modified to be louder.

Austin, who said he was pulled over after turning into the Maine Smoke Shop on College Avenue, said he argued that it was unfair to suddenly take issue with his exhaust noise after never having a problem before.

"The day they're enforcing the law they're finding my bike loud," he said.

Between July 12 and the end of January, police in Maine issued 157 tickets for excessive exhaust noise, according to the Maine Judicial Branch Violations Bureau in Lewiston. In the first half of 2010, there were 103 citations.

Of the people ticketed under the amended law, 17 had the charge dismissed and three -- other than Austin -- were found not guilty by a judge, according to the violations bureau.

"We win most of them, but we don't win all of them," Kennebec County District Attorney Evert Fowle said about traffic violation cases.

Fowle said he supports Massey's effort "to keep the streets and neighborhoods down to a dull roar when it comes to exhaust noise."

Both Fowle and Massey said they've heard from residents who noticed a difference in the noise level since the department started handing out tickets.

Massey said his intention is to reduce noise that disturbs outdoor diners and people sleeping in their homes -- not to slap a $137 fine on people with loud exhaust systems.

"I would much rather have voluntary compliance, and I think that happened," he said.

The police chief said he'll continue enforcing the law this summer. Austin thinks it should be rewritten first to include a maximum noise level and require officers to measure the noise before issuing a ticket.

"If I'm caught for (operating under the influence), they have to have a reading to prosecute me," Austin said.

Massey said charging someone for loud exhaust is more like charging someone for a loud party than for driving drunk, and officers can use their common sense.

"We don't have to have a decibel meter to put at your stereo at two in the morning," he said.

But, in Austin's case, the officer's discretion didn't hold up in court.

"Occasionally, there are cases that come up that a judge is going to find in favor of the defendant," Massey said. "That's OK. That's what the system is for. We're not going to change the way we enforce the law."

Leslie Bridgers -- 861-9252

lbridgers@centralmaine.com

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