The Racket: Police Raid Richmond House Show
Alex Wilhelm & Rozalia Janicki
1 – a loud noise or clamor
2 – an organized illegal activity
It was 11:15, and the show was literally moments from being over when 6 police officers pushed their way into the house on Clay Street. By the time the night was over, there would be eight officers and one random civilian. The house would be searched, photographs and social security numbers would be taken of people present – all in the name of the new noise ordinance, and all without a noise complaint ever having been made by anyone.
The bands had brought out a moderate crowd of 20-30 people, a decent size considering it was Easter Sunday. Alex Wilhelm and Rozalia Janicki have always locked their front door and covered it with a plank of wood during the shows they’ve hosted – to keep people from milling around outside and disturbing the neighbors. When one of the officers was later asked how they’d gained entry through that door, he began an explanation about something being “jimmied”, but was cut off mid-sentence by another officer who said that they had simply removed the plank. A later addition to their story was that they had found the door not just unlocked, but unclosed. It swung open, they now say, when they rapped on the metal lock to get the attention of people inside.
Rozalia says she compulsively checked the door that night, as she always had, just before heading upstairs. That’s when the police cruiser lights appeared outside the window. Alex and Rozalia both saw them at the same time. Alex immediately walked out the back door and around the house – where police were already entering the front door. By the time Rozalia made it halfway down the staircase, there were three officers in the doorway and three more already inside. Nevertheless, the officers involved now insist they knocked several times before entering.
The police claimed to be showing up to enforce the city’s controversial new noise ordinance. In brief, it states that no Richmonder may ever make any noise that can be heard 50 feet away. Between 11:00pm and 7:00am, no person may make a noise that can be heard by anyone other than themself. Furthermore, violation of the ordinance is a class 2 misdemeanor, punishable by as much as six months in jail, a $1,000 fine, or both. This has raised eyebrows for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the matter of enforceability: Is it possible for Richmonders to acquire lawnmowers that can’t be heard 50 feet away? Will half the bars and clubs within the city limits be forced to turn their music down drastically? Do barking dogs fall under this ordinance? What about the engines of cargo vehicles and 18-wheelers that deliver goods to businesses? What about power tools? Work crews and building sites? The law as written makes no exceptions, leaving it to the police to enforce where and when they like.
Alex and Rozalia had talked to their few neighbors about the shows they planned to host when they first moved into the house. Everyone said they wouldn’t mind, but the couple gave out their phone numbers just in case anyone ever needed to ask them to turn the volume down. They had always ended the shows around 11:00 out of consideration, and no one had ever complained.
Except on this particular night, according to one of the officers that stood in the house. But police records themselves have no such complaint on file, and its unclear why they would need to cite the new sound ordinance if the party was so loud and disruptive that someone had called in.
The police in the house – half from the VCU department and half from the city proper – then lined people up and demanded identification from each person in turn. This was a problem for party-goer Ian Hanawalt, who had been robbed of his wallet at gunpoint on the same street a few days earlier. The police doubted his story, threatening to take him to jail for underage drinking. (He had not been drinking.)
It was during this processing that Michael Disalvo, the senior police officer present, decided that it would be a good idea to search the house. He headed upstairs toward the bedrooms without presenting a warrant or giving any explanation. Rozalia asked whether she could follow, but another officer denied her request. It wasn’t until until they demanded that she retrieve her birth certificate that she was allowed to go upstairs.
As Disalvo threatened her with jail for the noise violation, a young woman Rozalia had never seen before bounded up her staircase, cheerily greeting the officer. A later investigation would reveal that the woman had been a “ride-along” with another uninvolved officer who had simply driven up to the house and directed her inside to the others.
Disalvo put business on hold long enough to flirt for a couple of minutes, then began taking photos to go with the social security numbers and home addresses they had already collected. By all accounts at least 4 people at the house were photographed. Some place the number at six.
It was then that both Alex and Rozalia simultaneously (though in different rooms) began asking questions of the officers. Why were they being detained? Were there charges being filed? If so, what were they? How had they gained access to the house in the first place? Alex says it was at this point that the mood shifted. The officer he was addressing would no longer look him in the eye. His body language changed. The impression Alex was left with was that he had not planned on having to answer to anyone, and might have been realizing that the legality of what was going on was questionable at best. For Rozalia, the shift was even more distinct, but more ominous, as the officers around her all stepped closer, in what she felt was a display of physical intimidation.
By the time the police left that night, they had issued several noise citations to members of the band and Rozalia. No other charges were filed, but they left with the personal information and matching photographs of several people. A number of the people who had been present immediately filed complaints alleging illegal entry, illegal search and unprofessional conduct. Alex was called in to meet with a lieutenant at his local precinct, who assured him that they would take care of any problems internally, and that it was okay to drop the issue. Alex refused to drop the issue and did not retract his complaint, insisting on further investigation.
The lawyer representing Rozalia and the band that was cited have already had a court date at which he pled not guilty based on the unconstitutionality of the law itself. Both the judge and prosecutor seemed open to the argument, but it is impossible to tell whether that will have any long-term relevance.
The people at the raided house are not the only ones upset about the ordinance. A Facebook group called “Richmond’s Noise Ordinance is Completely Insane” now has almost 1,600 members, and is populated with people who have experienced the effects of the law firsthand. Dan Nelson griped:
We were having a BBQ in the backyard on a Saturday. A very mean spirited cop showed up at 9 pm when there were only 3 people left sitting in the backyard. She threatened to give everyone in the house a summons if she ever has to come back. Ridiculous.
Matt Weinstock was a little more blunt:
$102 dollar ticket for playing my music too loud on my way into work. i have a stock system and it wasn’t completely turned up. fucking communism.
Others are more defiant and upbeat. John Downing, operator of Strange Matter writes:
I will not be oppressed for decibel disobedience!
Style Weekly covered the raid on Alex and Rozalia’s house, as did NBC 12 News. Neither mentioned the questionable activities of the police officers involved, focusing entirely on the law they used as pretext for their actions on Clay Street that night. The future of the noise ordinance is in question, and whether its violation will make other Richmonders targets of entry, search, photographing and intimidation by armed agents of the government remains to be seen.
The final court date for those cited will be held June 21st.