Court overturns woman’s horn-honking conviction
The state Supreme Court has overturned the conviction of a woman who was jailed for angrily honking her horn outside a neighbor’s house early one morning, saying the horn-honking provision of the county’s noise ordinance was too broad.
By Susan Gilmore
Seattle Times staff reporter
The case of a Snohomish County woman who was jailed for honking her horn in a dispute with a neighbor has been overturned by the state Supreme Court, which ruled that the county’s ordinance on horn-honking was overbroad.
“I’m proud of the justices; they stepped forward and promoted free speech,” said attorney John Tollefsen, who represented Helen Immelt in her appeal to the high court.
Charlie Blackman, deputy prosecutor with the Snohomish County Prosecutor’s Office, said the county respectfully disagrees with the ruling and is assessing what its next step should be.
Immelt, a real-estate appraiser, was living in a housing development in Monroe, where she kept five chickens. In 2006, she received a letter from her homeowners association saying covenants prevented residents from keeping chickens in the yard.
When she discovered who had complained about her chickens, she parked in front of his house just before 6 a.m. and, according to court documents, leaned on the horn for 5 to 10 minutes, waking up the neighbors.
The targeted neighbor called police. When an officer arrived, Immelt drove back by the neighbor’s house and let fly with three blasts of her car horn, at which point the officer arrested her.
She was later charged with violating the horn-honking provision of Snohomish County’s noise ordinance, which bars the sounding of a horn for purposes other than public safety, except as part of an official parade or public event. Immelt was convicted, and the conviction was affirmed by the state Court of Appeals. She spent a day in jail.
Immelt appealed, arguing the conviction violated her state and federal constitutional rights, specifically her rights of free speech.
After learning Thursday that the conviction had been overturned, Immelt, 59, said: “I’ve been in tears all morning. I’m very, very thankful for the decision.”
She hasn’t honked her horn in years, she added. “I was scared to. I didn’t want something bad to happen to me again.”
Kimberly Mills, spokeswoman for the Seattle City Attorney’s Office, believes Seattle’s noise ordinance would pass a constitutional challenge because it clearly spells out what’s unacceptable.
The provision on horn honking, she said, considers unreasonable noise to include “loud and raucous, and frequent, repetitive or continuous sounds made by any horn or siren attached to a motor vehicle.”
In Immelt’s case, the high court, on a 6-3 vote, ruled that the honking section of the Snohomish County noise ordinance was overbroad.
“Horn honking does constitute protected speech, regardless of whether it would constitute protected speech in Immelt’s particular case,” the justices ruled.
“This ordinance, on its face, prohibits legitimate expressions of speech conveyed by a horn honk,” they wrote, pointing out as examples wedding guests who celebrate by sounding their horns or drivers who toot their horns to pick up a co-worker, to respond to a sign that says “honk if you support our troops,” or to show support for someone picketing on a street corner.
The court said a more tailored ordinance that specifically prohibits horn honking meant to harass would probably survive scrutiny.
In a dissent, Justice James Johnson said the ordinance is not constitutionally overbroad. “Immelt’s violation of the horn ordinance was not constitutionally protected speech,” he said. “The horn ordinance legitimately prohibited her harassing conduct.”
Blackman, of the Snohomish County prosecutor’s office, said the court ruled on the constitutionality of the ordinance without first considering Immelt’s specific actions early that morning — conduct he described as angry horn honking that disturbed her neighborhood.
Immelt says earlier media accounts have misrepresented her actions that day; she says she didn’t honk her horn for 10 minutes that morning and that she hadn’t known about the homeowners covenant before the letter.
Tollefsen, who lives in Snohomish County, said that while he doesn’t want people honking outside his home, the ordinance could have been written more narrowly, like prohibiting horn honking in residential areas.
“You have to craft statutes that are reasonable,” he said. “This is a breakout kind of case, horn honking is speech. We should be proud of the justices who voted for this.”
After the horn incident, Immelt said, she gave away her chickens, but now that she has moved to a place with a large parcel of land, she’s back to keeping chickens — five of them again.
Susan Gilmore: 206-464-2054 or