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Opera-fan judge makes guilty face the music

Noise violators earful in Miami Beach

MIAMI BEACH — Ricky Libutti stood up, faced the judge, and pleaded guilty to cranking up a hip-hop beat after midnight as he cruised down Washington Avenue in his Acura Integra.

Judge Jeffrey Swartz offered what must have seemed a Hobson's choice to the 19-year-old with a crew cut and a love for what he called "conscious hip hop."

"You can either pay a fine," the judge told Libutti, "or you can spend a leisurely 2 1/2 hours listening to some opera music." Libutti took a moment to weigh his options. Finally, he headed for the judge's chambers.

"Libutti," Swartz said, "are you Italian?"

"I'm Italian," he answered.

"Do you understand Italian?"

"A little bit."

"Good," Swartz said. "It's called 'La Traviata.' It's about love, betrayal, and death. Kinda like Miami Beach. I hope you enjoy it."

On this island of paper-thin beauties, hundred-thousand-dollar cars and VIP pool parties, Miami Beach police began aggressively enforcing quality-of-life laws ver the last year. People who carry beer bottles in the street are handed tickets. Prostitutes are carted off before hellos are exchanged. And police are quick to pull over noise offenders if the rumbling boom-boom of their stereos can be heard from at least 100 feet away. Those offenders are ordered to make an appearance in Swartz's courtroom, where they are given the option of paying a $500 fine or listening to opera. Over the past year, more than 100 people charged with violating the noise ordinance have chosen "Carmen" over cash.

Swartz acknowledged that opera sentences might seem an odd punishment in another jurisdiction. "Miami Beach is a unique place, though," he said. In a courtroom where the sun and the palm trees are the backdrop, where some men show up for court in beach trunks and flip-flops and women wear tube dresses, stilettos, and last night's mascara, an opera sentence fits like a thong bikini.

Almost every Monday, after Swartz hears the cases of noise offenders, bailiff Alain Rodriguez lines up some chairs around his desk, calls in the defendants, turns up the volume on a small boom box, and pushes the play button. During the session, as arias are sung about broken hearts and untrue lovers, Rodriguez surveys the room and makes sure no one is leeping, eating, talking, or even staring out the window at the pretty people who sashay on by.

The idea of dooming noise violators to an afternoon of opera came to Swartz a year ago as he drove to work one day. He was minding his own business, with his windows rolled up, when something sounding very much like thunder shook the doors, rattled his floorboards, and interrupted his thoughts. "I could feel the bolts in my car start to loosen," he said.

Swartz turned his head and noticed a teenager dancing in his seat and mouthing lyrics to, well, some rap artist. It could have been P. Diddy, Chingy, or 50 Cent, for all Swartz knows.

The judge had that teen on his mind when he walked into his courtroom later that morning, took his seat at the bench, and looked into the eyes of another young man charged with a noise violation.

"I have an idea," Swartz recalled telling the teenager, thinking off the top of his head. "I am tired of others imposing their music on me. So I'm going to impose my music on you."

An appearance in front of Swartz is a little like visiting a sarcastic uncle. He has a sense of humor and tries to keep court sessions light. He hangs an Ohio State University baseball cap over the State of Florida flag in the courtroom and hardly ever wears a tie under his robe.

The only judge on the island, Swartz could have his own television show, say those who work around him. On an average day, he hears over 100 cases, most misdemeanors. "Wanna learn how to count to 10?" he asked a man before sending him to an anger management class. "Did you take your Ritalin this morning?" he said to an accused prostitute who would not stop talking. But he turned serious when three men come before him on charges of urinating in public. "Don't ever let me see your faces in here again," he said.

But Swartz has a weak spot for opera.

It is not that the 54-year-old thinks opera is better than rap, he said. (In fact, he used to despise opera until a former wife "dragged me kicking and screaming to see 'Don Giovanni' " six years ago.) If a man was caught blasting the "1812 Overture" down Ocean Drive, Swartz said, he ould make him listen to the Rolling Stones. And if a woman was cruising with a rendition of "Carmen" with the volume turned up all the way, she would have to listen to 2 1/2 hours of Nelly or whatever Swartz's 17-year-old daughter, Lizzy, is listening to these days.

But rap seems to be the choice of noise violators as cars cruise down Ocean Drive and Washington Avenue every night of the week. So opera is playing almost nonstop in Swartz's chambers.

"I take the position that coming to the courtroom doesn't have to be a bad experience," Swartz said.

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