Town Fines 80-Year-Olds $30K, Federal Judge Is NOT delighted
Town Fines 80-Year-Olds $30K, Federal Judge Is NOT Pleased
A quote from Judge Steven Seeger of the Northern District of Illinois:
“If the reader is thinking that things have, at this point, gone completely off the rails, buckle up, because the ride is not yet over.”
Federal judges are not immune to hyperbole, but there’s zero lies in Judge Seeger’s statement. Every single allegation in the case of Cozzi v. Village of Melrose Park raises the bonkers bar another notch. By the end, it feels as if nothing about this case could’ve really happened except when you realize many of the allegations were recorded!
In an opinion handed down earlier this week, Judge Seeger grants in part and denies in much, much larger part the town’s motion to dismiss. The story begins with an elderly couple with a couple of lawn chairs that they use to meet with people at proper social distancing during the pandemic. And yet, village authorities decided lawn furniture was “unsanitary” for unspecified reasons and issued a pair of $500 tickets.
The couple’s adult son complained about the tickets and other mistreatment of his parents at public meetings. At which point… cops gotta cop.
That free expression led to an avalanche of tickets. The Village issued the Cozzis a $500 ticket nearly every business day from December 3, 2020 to March 3, 2021. Christmas Eve was no exception. The tickets would financially cripple the Cozzis, an elderly couple on a fixed income.
Now when Judge Seeger says “financially cripple,” he means it. Melrose Park issued 62 tickets!
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.
What is it with the animus toward the elderly these days? This reminds me of that Michigan judge going after a 72-year-old cancer patient for not mowing his lawn enough.
Anyway, the Melrose Park saga continues. The Cozzis’ son also received a note from a cop about supposed parking violations and then a slew of parking tickets. And then this…
The police surveilled the home several times a day. Michael Cozzi received threatening text messages from unknown or restricted phone numbers. Someone broke his car window. And on one occasion, the Mayor of Melrose Park, Ronald Serpico, drove by and verbally threatened Michael Cozzi with violence.
I want to be crystal clear: all of these allegations are before Judge Seeger warns us to buckle up!
It’s only after that warning do we learn that the town demanded elderly people with health issues attend a hearing in person at the height of the pandemic and when they tried to get a continuance, slapped them with a default judgment on a bunch of the tickets. And then we learn that many of the supposed complaints were apparently fabricated – a FOIA request was returned with the statement that no responsive documents existed. And that many of the tickets were sequentially numbered – as in, no one else in town got a ticket in the meantime. And it’s not like the couple were the only house deviating from some kind of Stepford Neighborhood where no one has any personality:
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.
Then the violent harassment from anonymous actors rolls in:
All of a sudden, Michael Cozzi started receiving threats on his phone. He received texts from unknown or blocked numbers. One text told him to get out: “Wait till I see you. I’m splitting your curly wig, you dead beat C*nt. This is my neighborhood; you best get the f*ck out before we make you get out.”
Another text – from a restricted number – threatened to kill him. And it threatened his elderly parents, too:
Listen, you sheep head motherf*cker. I’m going to put a piece in the back of your motherf*cking skull. I’m going to f*ck your mother and your father.
Get the f*ck out of Melrose Park before you catch a f*cking beating. Do you understand me, you f*cking c*nt motherf*cker?
Do you have any idea who the f*ck you’re f*cking with?
You’ll be dead, you motherf*cker. I’m telling you one time. Last f*cking time I’m going to call you, you piece of sh*t c*nt motherf*cker.
Before going further, let’s take a second to give Judge Seeger proper credit for wordsmithing this horrible account into a compelling, and at times even funny, narrative. I mean… he at one point writes of a particular alleged harasser, “he used the ‘f-word’ over and over, as a noun, a verb, and an adjective” and then hits the carriage return to write the single sentence paragraph, “It was recorded.” That’s positively smurfy writing.
And it’s not the first time we’ve given Judge Seeger a shout-out for his writing. About a week into the first lockdown, a party demanded an “immediate hearing” on a copyright claim and Judge Seeger… was not happy. The Judge is rapidly climbing the ranks of my favorite federal bench reads.
Now we come to the mayor’s comments when the couple’s son tried to speak at a public meeting. To frame what comes next, Judge Seeger writes:
That’s when Mayor Serpico completely lost it. He lost his cool. He lost his temper. And if he has any ability to express himself without using expletives, he lost that too.
There’s a recording of this which you can listen to here in this video by the Sun-Times. Otherwise check out Judge Seeger’s abridged account below:
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 f*ck 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.”
Michael Cozzi responded with a simple question: “What did I do to you?” Id. That innocent question sent Mayor Serpico into the next stratosphere.
What he lacked in elegance – and in range of vocabulary – he made up for in directness: “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!”
Michael Cozzi then asked about his broken window. Id. That didn’t go over well.
When it came to expletives, Mayor Serpico still had some gas left in the tank: “I give a f*ck about your window. Like I worry about your f*cking house when I drive past it. Now do me a favor and go sit down and shut up.”
With regard to the word “shine,” Judge Seeger notes in a footnote:
The word “shine” is a disparaging term for a black person. It comes “from shoeshine, for the fact they often shine shoes for richer white folks.” Shine, Urban Dictionary, https://www.urbandictionary.com/ define.php?term=shine (last accessed March 21, 2022). It was more common in the early 20th century. But apparently, it is still part of Mayor Serpico’s repertoire.
“The tirade may not have creative value, but it did have evidentiary value,” writes Judge Seeger. Indeed.
Describing the incident at the meeting, the opinion notes:
[The Mayor] told [the son] where to go, and then some.
The Village told the Cozzis where to go, but they went to the federal courthouse instead.
It’s easy around these parts to get deeply cynical about law and justice and the federal judiciary. But sometimes there’s a story like this and a direct, scathing opinion like this. A court willing to dispense with the law’s embrace of a contrived, mealy-mouthed objectivity and just call out abuse. This may only be the motion to dismiss, but Melrose Park may want to read the room and start talking settlement.
Joe Patrice is a senior editor at Above the Law and co-host of Thinking Like A Lawyer. Feel free to email any tips, questions, or comments. Follow him on Twitter if you’re interested in law, politics, and a healthy dose of college sports news. Joe also serves as a Managing Director at RPN Executive Search.