Judge Says Mayor, Town Can’t Escape 1st Amendment Retaliation Suit Involving 62 Tickets Over Lawn Furniture
from the 'do-what-thou-wilt,-that-is-the-whole-of-the-law-until-otherwise-litigated' dept
The problem with electing abusive assholes is you may not know they’re abusive assholes until after you’ve elected them. Then you have a problem on your hands, at least until the next election cycle. Until then, rights get violated and people get victimized. And while these abusive officials spend tax dollars getting “I didn’t choose the thug life, the thug life chose me” tattooed across their lower abdomen in 36-point stylized Times New Roman, residents are subjected to vindictive bullshit — forced to put up with until a court says otherwise.
Too often, courts don’t. Immunity — ranging from “qualified” to “absolute” — often shields abusive public servants from the consequences of their actions. Indemnification shields them even when the courts can’t. And the average person often simply doesn’t have the finances to go up against someone who plays with a stacked deck using other people’s money.
Every so often, the plaintiffs win. And by “win,” I mean they get to continue litigating. This case — coming to us via the Volokh Conspiracy — shows just how petty and vindictive city officials can be, even when their fiefdom barely exceeds 25,000 residents.
Refusing to let a good deed go unpunished, the Village of Melrose Park decided to go after the parents of a man who had the temerity to speak up about previous abuse at public meetings. Michael Cozzi complained about two previous tickets his parents, Vincent and Angeline Cozzi, had received for the crime of [gasp!] having lawn chairs on their lawn. Michael Cozzi also complained generally about the mistreatment of his parents by the city.
Things got ugly real fast. From the federal court decision [PDF]:
The Village of Melrose Park decided that it would be a good idea to issue 62 tickets to an elderly couple for having lawn chairs in their front yard. The Village issued ticket after ticket, imposing fine after fine, to two eighty-year-old residents, Plaintiffs Vincent and Angeline Cozzi.
The fines were not small potatoes. Each ticket cost $500, so the Village tagged them with fines totaling about $30,000. And when it was all said and done, the Village slapped them with a lien on their house, for good measure.
The tickets faulted the Cozzis for creating a nuisance and for “unsanitary conditions.” The tickets did not explain what was unsanitary about the plastic lawn chairs. But the Village claimed that they were receiving anonymous calls about “clutter” on their front lawn.
The Cozzis, for their part, didn’t view their lawn furniture as wasteful clutter. In fact, they regularly used the furniture to sit outside, and visit with loved ones in a socially distanced manner during the pandemic. The fresh air and companionship apparently cost them $30,000.
There was more to it than this. But this was plenty. The Cozzis were ticketed nearly every business day from December 3, 2020 to March 3, 2021. The Village even ticketed them on Christmas Eve.
Their son fared no better. He received a handwritten note from a police officer about supposed parking violations. This was followed by a deluge of parking tickets. He also received threatening phone calls and text messages. Police placed his house under surveillance. His car was vandalized. The mayor got into the action as well, driving by Michael Cozzi to deliver a verbal threat of violence.
Michael Cozzi again made an attempt to plead for some sort of sanity to prevail at a Village public meeting in early 2021. This did not go well.
In January 2021, as the deluge of tickets rained down, Michael Cozzi went to a public meeting at the Village of Melrose Park to express his concerns. The meeting, it turns out, was recorded. And to put it mildly, Mayor [Ronald] Serpico responded poorly. He unleashed what can only be described as a filthy, profanity-laden tirade with racial overtones. He told him where to go, and then some.
Here’s what the Mayor told Michael Cozzi:
Mayor Serpico spewed the following missive: “I’m going to tell you something, you’re really reaching me. So, do me a f*cking favor and sit down and shut the fck up. How’s that? You little f*cking pr*ck. Go on, shake your f*cking head. You’re nothing but a f*cking punk.”
From what’s detailed in this decision, the Village engaged in a vendetta against Michael Cozzi by targeting his parents. The court doesn’t exactly call the city and its mayor liars, but it doesn’t exactly not do that, either.
The Mayor’s office purportedly received four phone calls about “clutter” on the Cozzis’ lawn. One call was by a former owner of the home – who no longer lived in the Village – while the other three callers were “anonymous.”
Around November 2020, the Village supposedly received more “anonymous” phone calls about the “clutter” in the Cozzis’ front yard, including lawn chairs and Halloween decorations. In reality, the complaints were exaggerated, or fabricated altogether.
It was concerted harassment. Dig this:
The Cozzis received “near-daily” citations for these “nuisances,” including Christmas Eve. They received tickets on December 3, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 21, 22, 23, 24, 28, 29, 30, 31, and on January 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 19, 20, 21, 22, 25, 26, 27, 28, and on February 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 16, 17, 18, 19, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, and on March 3. That’s 57 tickets.
Many of the tickets have sequential numbers, suggesting that no one else in the entire Village received a ticket in the meantime.
Pure fucking bullshit. Lawns far more cluttered than the Cozzis’ went unaddressed.
The fact that the Village wasn’t ticketing anyone else wasn’t for lack of opportunities. The complaint is chock-full of pictures of other houses in the neighborhood. The surrounding lawns are adorned with used mattresses, a 15-foot skeleton with a Santa hat, garbage, and trampolines. There are reindeer, swans, candy canes, stars, pergolas, tchotchkes, and Christmas decorations at various degrees of garishness. Not to mention plenty of lawn furniture.
What were those lawns missing? Tickets.
The complaints allegedly triggering these tickets? Nonexistent.
Michael Cozzi filed a FOIA request for copies of the “anonymous complaints” in connection with the Cozzis’ home. On February 3, the Village responded that it had “no documents that were responsive.” For whatever reason, the complaints couldn’t be found.
The lawsuit followed. And the court says these allegations are more than enough to surmount any barriers various forms of immunity or “get out of lawsuit FREE” cards the Village (and its mayor) might try to play.
In the case at hand, there is more than enough in the complaint to allege that the conduct originated with a person with final decision-making power. Mayor Serpico wielded power on behalf of the Village, and he used it to impose a policy and practice of punishing the Cozzis.
That’s the Monell claim being sustained. If someone wields as much power as this mayor does, and his actions (or blessing of actions) results in rights violations, the mayor can be held directly responsible for these rights violations. City policy is overseen by the mayor. And this mayor in particular determined how the Village of Melrose Park would be run and (in this case) which laws would be selectively enforced to intimidate his critics.
Mayor Serpico holds considerable power in the Village of Melrose Park. He is a “final policymaker and serves the president” of the Village. He has served as the Mayor for over 20 years. He wields executive authority within the Village, and the Board “rubberstamps” his recommendations for ordinances. The Board has rejected his legislative proposals (meaning ordinances) only twice in 24 years. In short, he runs the town.
Guilty af, says the court.
If this case were a Monell crime scene, the Mayor left his fingerprints, footprints, and DNA all over the place.
Officers stated to the Cozzis that the tickets were “from the Mayor, not us.” Subsequent ticket deliveries arrived with the message that these were from the cops’ “boss” and “not us.” According to his own testimony, his office had directly received complaints about the Cozzis’ property. (Complaints the city couldn’t produce when asked, mind you.) On top of everything else (and this includes the mayor’s recorded, f-bomb-laden diatribe to Michael Cozzi at a Village public meeting), the Mayor went out of his way to insert himself into this shitshow.
[I]n one particularly unfortunate episode, the Mayor tried to pick a fight with Michael Cozzi outside his home. The Mayor told Cozzi to count his blessings for the privilege of not getting beat up: “You’re lucky I don’t get out of this car and beat your *ss.”
This was coupled with a racial slur:
“You’re a jag off! You look like a f*cking shine on 15th [avenue] because you’re doing it to bust f*cking balls. That’s what your doing. So, go f*ck yourself. Go f*ck yourself!”
This complaint is sustained, says the court. And how.
Reading the complaint as a whole, it takes a small step – not an inferential leap – to conclude that Mayor Serpico personally orchestrated the campaign of punitive tickets that rained down on the Cozzi family. The complaint paints a picture of state-sanctioned bullying at the hands of the Mayor, who implemented a policy of punishing dissent and compelling compliance. Overall, the allegations support the inference that Mayor Serpico implemented a policy to punish, harass, and intimidate the Cozzi family.
This will go in front of a jury. And, from what’s been shown here, there’s little doubt Mayor Serpico is headed directly towards a decision finding in the favor of the plaintiff. At this point, the residents may as well pull a name out of the hat to fill Serpico’s position. They can’t possibly do any worse than the person they’ve repeatedly elected.