William Hobarth’s An Election Entertainment, an illustration of disorderly musicianship.
[Note: This story has been updated to incorporate an additional statement from the Alexandria Police Department. – 9/03/2016]
[Additional note: A statement from the City of Alexandria has been added at the end. – 9/07/2016]
It started out as a normal day for Krista Monique Clouse of Alexandria, VA. The opera singer and professional busker arrived at King Street and Lee Street and set up for work in front of Comfort One Shoes. Her equipment? A Bluetooth speaker, the music player on her smartphone, and a soprano voice trained at Boston and Brigham Young Universities. Her day’s agenda? To sing through the afternoon into the night, until the crowds flocking to Old Alexandria and its waterfront were well and firmly headed home. The day’s true ending? Getting arrested by the Alexandria Police Department and being booked at the police station for disorderly conduct.
Ask a street musician if busking is legal and you’ll probably hear some variation on “Music is protected under the Constitution.” This belief stems from a famous court case that began in Alexandria, VA itself during the 1980s, Davenport vs. City of Alexandria Virginia, in which the U.S. Court of Appeals determined that the City of Alexandria’s ban on busking in the city’s central business district – an area encompassing King Street and Lee – was unconstitutional. As with much of case law, what a court decision means and what people think it means often diverge – whether those people be lawyers, police officers, or musicians. On Friday, the latter two had a rather unfortunate difference of interpretation.
Around 9:45 PM, Clouse was getting ready to sing Franz Schubert’s Ave Maria, a classical music favorite that she normally sang to a recorded orchestral accompaniment playing out of a small Bluetooth speaker. A small group of police officers approached, informed her that her singing was in violation of City Ordinance Sec. 11-5-4b.
Clouse responded that her singing with the recorded accompaniment was a protected constitutional right, referencing Davenport vs. City of Alexandria Virginia. One of the officers responded that he would arrest Clouse if she did not cease her singing.
Old Alexandria is rather like Asheville, NC – a famous busking place, with a large population of professional street musicians who know the territory and are generally on good terms with local merchants, who notice when the musicians go on vacation and customers don’t linger as long or spend as much money. The busking tradition goes quite a ways back in this town, and is even listed as a crowd draw on the Visit Alexandria website. For Krista Monique Clouse and her husband Larry Clouse (also a professional street musician), the streets of Old Alexandria were both work and home, a place where five years’ work intersected with their courtship, marriage, and raising a daughter who sat in on day-long sings and charmed passersby.
To Alexandria’s busking veterans, performing in prime spots like King St & Union and King St & Lee follows a simple and straightforward first-come-first-serve basis, with the early bird getting less of the worm and more of the tips from passersby. Musicians who came early enough to get a prime spot that day tend to stay put (through various tradeoffs with friends and companions) until they leave. It is, if you display enough talent, a great place to pick up leads for gigs – like singing at a dinner hosted by Michelle Obama in April of last year, where Krista Monique Clouse was accompanied on the piano by her husband Larry. It is also a small enough town where you tend to get to know people; according to Clouse, she had spoken to one of the arresting police officers just the week prior about performing in the spot.
After hearing the officer’s warning, Clouse proceeded to sing the Ave Maria; the officers responded by arresting her, placing Clouse in handcuffs while they frisked and patted her down on the open street. Then they whisked her off to the police station to book her for disorderly conduct, a charge which in the State of Virginia is directed towards persons engaged in violent or drunken behavior, or who disrupt weddings and funerals. The charge is also applied on occasion to persons protesting at political events.
No statement from the Alexandria, VA Police Department was available at press time.
Update (9/03/2016): Crystal Nosal, the Senior Public Information Officer for the Alexandria Police Department, stated that Krista Monique Clouse was charged with a noise violation for use of amplified sound without a permit, and that she refused four orders to desist in her use of amplified sound. In a statement, Clouse stated that “disorderly conduct” was cited multiple times by the arresting officers and during the intake process; no disagreement was made that the final charge was for a noise violation.
Update (9/07/2016): The City of Alexandria released this statement today:
City of Alexandria to Review Noise Ordinances Regarding Street Performers
From the City of Alexandria, VA Noise Code (italics added):
Sec. 11-5-4 Noises prohibited–enumeration.
(a) It shall be unlawful for any person to make, continue, or cause to be made or continued any excessive, unnecessary or unusually loud noise or any noise which unreasonably annoys, disturbs, injures or endangers the comfort, health, safety, welfare, or environment of others, within the limits of the city.
(b) The following acts, among others, are declared to be unlawful, but this enumeration shall not be deemed to be exclusive, namely:
Sound reproduction device. The using or operating of any radio receiving set, musical instrument, phonograph, or other machine or device for the producing or reproducing of sound, or permitting the same to be played, used or operated in such manner as to disturb unreasonably the comfort, health, peace, safety, or welfare and environment of the neighboring inhabitants. The operation of any set, instrument, phonograph, machine or device between the hours of 11:00 p.m. and 7:00 a.m. in such manner as to be plainly audible across property boundaries at a distance of 50 feet from the building, structure or vehicle in which it is located shall be prima facie evidence of a violation of this section, except such operation by a public service company or the city to restore and maintain services provided by it.
From the Code of Virginia:
18.2-415. Disorderly conduct in public places