Noise ticket against church dismissed
A scheduled trial of newhope church and its pastor over an alleged noise-ordinance violation fell apart Tuesday morning after one of the church’s neighbors didn’t show up to testify.
The prosecutor handling the case, Assistant District Attorney Jonathan Jones, sought a continuance, but District Court Judge Pat Evans turned it down.
Jones then asked for a dismissal, but Evans contrary to his request said she was dismissing the case “with prejudice.”
That meant she didn’t want prosecutors resurrecting it later with the noise measurements police took in the Hills at Southpoint neighborhood, adjoining the church, just before Christmas.
Jones said prosecutors would appeal Evans’ decision, meaning they’ll ask a Superior Court judge to weigh in.
The judge’s ruling came at the urging of newhope defense lawyer Bill Thomas, who called Jones’ request for a continuance “an end run” around the trial schedule.
“The moment of truth is now upon us and it is time to try this case, today, right now,” Thomas told Evans.
Jones indicated he wanted to call Eastcrest Court resident Aleida Alvarez to testify, but hadn’t been able to confirm she’d been served with a subpoena. He also said Alvarez was “pregnant and due any time and [was] not available” Tuesday.
Thomas said Alvarez “was not a necessary witness” because the case was based on the Durham Police Department’s noise measurements.
Several police officers – among them Capt. David Addison, commander of the patrol district that covers the church and the Hills at Southpoint – were in court Tuesday in apparent readiness to testify.
Thomas indicted he was prepared to challenge the validity of the noise readings. The key measurement, he said, was taken by an officer who stood outside a house “up against a reflective surface” as he was using the meter.
“The Durham Police Department does not know how to use their decibel meters,” Thomas said in an interview after Tuesday’s hearing. “They simply are not trained; they have the wrong settings. We have read their reports, had our engineers read their reports. These guys might as well be hanging up a meat thermometer as a decibel meter. They have no idea how to work them.”
Church pastor Benji Kelley was on hand to answer the charge.
A few dozen newhope parishioners accompanied him, making up a crowd large enough that there wasn’t room in the courtroom for them and the people involved in the morning’s other cases to share it.
Durham County Sheriff’s Office deputies asked the parishioners to remain outside during the initial calendar call, and then asked those not involved with the church’s case to clear the courtroom while the hearing on its ticket unfolded.
Afterwards, Kelley and his flock gathered again in the square outside the main entrance of the new courthouse.
He read to them a quote from Psalm 71, including a passage from the New International Version that prays for accusers to “perish in shame” and “those who want to harm me [to] be covered with scorn and disgrace.”
Acting District Attorney Leon Stanback declined to comment on Tuesday’s events. “That’s still in process,” he said, meaning the matter remains before the courts.
Stanback and his assistants had signaled last year that they were reluctant to bring a case against the church based on the city noise ordinance’s ban on “unreasonably loud” or “disturbing” noise.
They eventually backtracked, but not before the DA had signaled his preference that any charge refer to the decibel standard city officials also wrote into the law.
The city bars daytime noises louder than 60 decibels – equivalent in loudness to the sound of the human voice in ordinary conversation – as measured at the source’s property line.
Thomas conceded that even if Evans’ order survives an appeal, police and prosecutors would be free to file new charges against the church if there’s another incident.
Kelley’s church has branches in three towns and claims to have more than 3,000 members. The complaints about noise from newhope’s Durham services have come from five families in the Hills at Southpoint who live close by.
The families are separately pursuing a civil lawsuit against the church. Thomas said a civil proceeding is a “more appropriate” venue for the dispute and added that the church “will litigate the matter to its conclusion.”