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Racial slurs, animal noises played in Virginia neighborhood not considered a crime, police say

Generic: Day Police Lights
Posted at 12:31 PM, Oct 08, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-08 15:35:28-04

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va — The Virginia Beach Police Department said Thursday that the "disturbing and reprehensible" situation occurring between neighbors on Jessamine Court has stopped and will not be prosecuted.

According to the department, in October 2020, officers responded to several calls for service related to nuisance and loud music complaints on the street.

A neighbor claimed that another neighbor was playing "offensive sounds, lights and words" at a high volume, including banjo music, racial slurs, and animal sounds.

“The lights on his house would start blinking because as we step out of our home, we would trigger sensors that would then turn on music,” said Jannique Martinez, who lives next door. “We had one family that as soon as they’d pull up in their driveway, the music would start.”

Martinez said her youngest son was affected the most by the taunting.

"He was terrified," she said. "He would be afraid to go get his ball if it ever went over there, or he would constantly feel like he would come out and yell at him, which he has before."

Police Chief Paul Neudigate said he spoke directly with the complainant in the case Thursday, who told her neighbor to stop playing the noises.

"I was pleased to hear from her that the offensive behavior voluntarily ceased as of Sept. 23 and has not reoccured," Neudigate said in a statement. "I assured Ms. Martinez that the Virginia Beach Police Department will continue to assist with her concerns, and she should not hesitate to call if the behavior recurs."

After they conducted a thorough investigation, the department said that the City Attorney, Magistrate, and Commonwealth's Attorney are "all in agreement" that the neighbor's behavior does not rise to the level of a crime under Virginia statutes.

The statutes in which "may only criminalize words that constitute true threats or are reasonably likely to provoke an immediate breach of the peace."

"The sounds, lights, and words displayed from within the home on Jessamine Court, while offensive and unacceptable, do not meet that standard. Therefore, the current evidence does not support a criminal charge," the department said.

Police also said the loud music doesn’t go above the noise level in the city ordinance.

Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police Executive Director Dana Schrad said to charge someone with a hate crime in this type of matter; you have to have specific intent and prove that someone intended to instill fear or intimidation against a person, or purposely harassed them because of their particular class.

“The defense part of this is, does the individual have a free speech right that would be in some way, they have a first amendment right to communicate whatever they want,” Schrad said. “You can have [a] bias against anybody; it’s not a crime to do that. The crime occurs when you specifically intend to harass or intimidate when your speech elevates to that level.”

Because he didn’t make any direct threats to her family, Martinez said there’s not much that can be done.

“I felt deflated,” she said. “I felt so defeated. I just felt like I couldn’t protect my kids. I couldn’t imagine living like this.”

According to the department, officials continue to explore other avenues of redress, including contacting the FBI to see if there was anything actionable from a federal standpoint. In the meantime, the Civil Division of the Attorney General's Office is investigating.

"My Office of Civil Rights is in touch with the victims of this harassment, and we are working alongside them and state entities to stop it," Attorney General Mark Herring said in a tweet. "Race-based harassment and discrimination in housing is illegal, and I will not allow it to happen in Virginia."

Antoinette DelBel at WTKR first reported this story.