Noisy Neighbor in San Mateo, California
General guidance on what to do about a noisy neighbor in San Mateo, California. While generally applicable, all cases are fact specific. This guide is not legal advice for the purposes of the reader's specific case, nor a substitute for consulting with a local practicing attorney.
Legal Recourse Against Noisy NeighborThe most effective weapon you have to maintain your peace and quiet is your local noise ordinance. Almost every community has one.
In San Mateo this is Ordinance 4.88.350 - General Noise Regulation. It reads,
"Notwithstanding any other provision of this ordinance, it shall be unlawful for any person to willfully or negligently make or continue, or cause to be made or continued any unreasonably loud, unnecessary, or unusual noise which disturbs the peace and quiet of any neighborhood or which causes any discomfort or annoyance to any person of normal sensitivity residing in the area. The factors which shall be considered in determining whether a violation of the provisions of this section exist include the following:
a) The sound level of the objectionable noise. b) The sound level of the background noise. c) The proximity of the noise to residential sleeping or hospital facilities. d) The nature and zoning of the area from which the noise emanates and upon which the noise impacts. e) The number of persons affected by the noise sources. f) The time of day or night the noise occurs. g) The duration of the noise and its tonal, informational, or musical content. h) Whether the noise is continuous, recurrent, or intermittent. i) Whether the noise is produced by a commercial or non-commercial activity."
In addition to the City Ordinance there is the state penal code. Your noisy neighbor may be violating a criminal statute under California Penal Code 415-Disturbing the Peace.
Under California Penal Code 415, it is illegal for a person to do ANY of the following:
Unlawfully fight in a public place or challenge another person in a public place to fight;
Maliciously and willfully disturb another person by loud and unreasonable NOISE; or
Use offensive words in a public place which are inherently likely to provoke an immediate, violent reaction.
Actions that can result in a disturbing the peace charge include playing music at a high volume to disturb neighbors.
Depending on the circumstances, and your neighbor's past criminal history, disturbing the peace can result in an infraction or a misdemeanor charge.
An infraction is punishable by a fine of up to $250. A misdemeanor conviction is punishable by up to three months in county jail and a fine of up to $400. A misdemeanor disturbing the peace conviction will also appear on their criminal record. So it is possible under certain circumstances, that the police could arrest your neighbor. Usually an arrest would only occur if the behavior repeats, or your neighbor is acting "maliciously."
You may well have claims against your landlord if your landlord has failed to diligently investigate and follow up on your complaints. See e.g. Andrews v. Mobile Aire Estates (2005) 125 Cal.App.4th 578, 588
What Steps Should I Take?There are several steps to take. The first is, to approach your neighbor and politely talk the problem over with them. Because they are a neighbor it is important you do this if feasible. You will see this person often, maybe everyday, so trying to resolve matters without getting attorneys involved is smart. Sometimes communicating is all it takes. If that does not work, or is not feasible, there are several options available.
Demand LetterIf approaching your neighbor did not work, or was not feasible, one option is to send them a "demand letter." You can write this yourself or hire an attorney to write one for you. A "demand letter" written by an attorney is likely to be taken more seriously and may be very useful if you end up in mediation or small claims court. It can be very important if you request a restraining order. The Judge likely will appreciate you taking this step before getting the Courts involved. The "demand letter" should spell out exactly what the problem was, when it occurred, how it is impacting you, and what you want done about it. It should be sent via US Certified Mail. If applicable, send a copy to your landlord. Keep copies of the letter and the receipt.
If you live in an apartment, in may be worthwhile to send a letter to the landlord property management. Again, you write this yourself or have an attorney do it. In my experience letters from attorneys get the landlord/property management to act. This is often true when the property management oversees apartments for distant corporate owners. Frequently, the property managers are not competent or motivated to deal with these issues. A letter from an attorney may change that fast.
MediationIf a "demand letter" did not work, the next option is mediation. In mediation, you and your neighbor work with a neutral third person. Unlike a judge or an arbitrator, a mediator will not take sides or make a decision but will help you and your neighbor come to a solution. Mediation is particularly useful in cases involving neighbors because it is designed to identify and resolve not just the immediate problem but also any tensions and unresolved issues that led up to it
Small Claims CourtIf talking to the neighbor and/or sending them a "demand letter" did not resolve the matter, another option is suing for nuisance in small claims court to recover money damages. Getting a small claims court to order your neighbor to pay you money can a very effective way to solve this problem. The benefits of suing in small claims is that it is easy and inexpensive and you do not need a lawyer, because lawyers are not allowed in small claims. Here, the demand letter you sent may be important evidence spelling out your case for the judge.
The basis of the nuisance claim is that the noise produced by the neighbors interferes with your legal right to "quiet enjoyment" of your property. In the lawsuit, you should ask for a monetary figure that represents adequate compensation for the disturbances you have suffered.
You will need to provide proof of the disturbances and explain how they have interfered with your quality of life. You will also need to provide proof of your earlier attempts to obtain relief by other means, such as letters or calls to the police.
In court you can present testimony from witnesses, audio and video recordings, photographs, police reports and the testimony of other neighbors. Whether or not you are monetarily compensated for your trouble, the lawsuit may be enough to get the attention of your neighbors and/or their landlord, ending the noise disturbances.
Civil Harassment Restraining Order (CHRO)To get a civil harassment restraining order (CHRO) where the court orders your neighbor to keep the noise down, you will have to file in regular (civil) court. This can be a time consuming and a somewhat expensive option. Like in small claims, you will need to provide proof of the disturbances and explain how they have interfered with your quality of life. You will also need to provide proof of your earlier attempts to obtain relief by other means, such as demand letters or calls to the police. A CHRO can be very beneficial. If the neighbor fails to obey it, and you call the police, they may face criminal penalties. These potentially include jail, probation, fines and fees and a criminal conviction.
In regular court you can present testimony from witnesses, audio and video recordings, photographs, police reports and the testimony of other neighbors. Again, whatever the outcome the lawsuit may be enough to get the attention of your neighbors and/or their landlord, ending the noise disturbances.
Additional AdviceOne thing you can do is video or audio record the noise when it happens. And keep a log of the dates and times the disturbance occurs. Also note your "damages" such as lost sleep.
If you do go to Court, to maximize your chances of winning and obtaining compensation from your noisy neighbor or, at the very least, an end to the noise, consult with a lawyer as soon as possible. Even if you cannot afford to hire an attorney, a low cost consultation can be very valuable. Call your local bar association and see if they have a low cost (often called "modest means") panel of attorneys. Or if they can help you find a very low cost attorney to consult with.