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from ‘do-what-you-will-it’s-all-the-law-until-otherwise-contentious’ department
The problem with electing abusive assholes is that you might not know they’re abusive assholes until after you elected them. Then you have a problem on your hands, at least until the next election cycle. Until then, rights are violated and people are victimized. And while these abusive officials are spending taxpayers’ money to get “I didn’t choose the thug life, the thug life chose me” tattoos on their lower abdomens in Times New A stylized 36-point novel, the residents are subjected to vindictive bullshit – forced to put up with until a court rules otherwise.
Too often the courts do not. Immunity – ranging from “qualified” to “absolute” – often shields abusive officials from the consequences of their actions. Compensation protects them even when the courts cannot. And the average person often just can’t afford to go up against someone who is playing with a stacked deck using other people’s money.
From time to time, plaintiffs win. And by “win,” I mean they can continue to plead. This business – come to us via Volokh’s plot – shows how petty and vindictive city officials can be, even when their fiefdom barely exceeds 25,000 inhabitants.
Unwilling to let a good deed go unpunished, the village of Melrose Park decided to sue the parents of a man who had the temerity to speak out about past abuse at public meetings. Michael Cozzi complained about two previous traffic tickets his parents, Vincent and Angeline Cozzi, had received for the crime of [gasp!] have lawn chairs on their lawn. Michael Cozzi also complained generally about the city’s mistreatment of his parents.
Things went wrong very quickly. From the federal court decision [PDF]:
The Village of Melrose Park decided 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 upon fine, to two octogenarians, plaintiffs Vincent and Angeline Cozzi.
The fines were no small potatoes. With each ticket costing $500, the Village imposed fines on them totaling approximately $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 blamed the Cozzi for creating a nuisance and “unsanitary conditions”. The tickets did not explain what was unhygienic about the plastic lawn chairs. But the village said it was getting anonymous calls about “clutter” on its lawn.
The Cozzis, on the other hand, didn’t view their patio furniture as unnecessary clutter. In fact, they regularly used the furniture to sit outside and visit loved ones in a socially distanced manner during the pandemic. Fresh air and company apparently cost them $30,000.
There was more than that. But it was a lot. The Cozzis received tickets almost every working day from December 3, 2020 to March 3, 2021. The Village even issued them on Christmas Eve.
Their son is no better off. He received a handwritten note from a police officer regarding alleged parking violations. This was followed by a deluge of parking tickets. He also received threatening phone calls and text messages. The police placed her home under surveillance. His car was vandalized. The mayor also got in on the action, led by Michael Cozzi to issue a verbal threat of violence.
Michael Cozzi tried again to plead for some sort of common sense to prevail at a town hall meeting in early 2021. It didn’t go over well.
In January 2021, as the deluge of tickets rained down, Michael Cozzi went to a town hall meeting in the village of Melrose Park to voice his concerns. Turns out the meeting was taped. And that’s an understatement, Mr. Mayor [Ronald] Serpico answered incorrectly. He unleashed what can only be described as a dirty, crass tirade with racial overtones. He told her where to go, and then some.
Here is what the mayor said to Michael Cozzi:
Mayor Serpico spat out the following missive: “I’m going to tell you something, you’re really getting to me. So do me a fucking favor and sit down and shut the fuck up. How is? You little asshole. Come on, shake your fucking head. You’re nothing but a fucking punk.
As detailed in this decision, the Village has engaged in a vendetta against Michael Cozzi targeting his parents. The court isn’t exactly calling the city and its mayor liars, but it isn’t exactly either.
The mayor’s office reportedly received four phone calls about the “mess” on the Cozzi’s lawn. One call came from a former owner of the house – who no longer lived in the village – while the other three callers were “anonymous”.
Around November 2020, the Village reportedly received more “anonymous” phone calls about “clutter” in the Cozzi’s front yard, including lawn chairs and Halloween decorations. In reality, the complaints were exaggerated or fabricated.
It was concerted harassment. Dig this:
The Cozzis received “almost daily” citations for these “nuisances”, including on 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 January 4, 5 , 6, 7, 8, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 19, 20, 21, 22, 25, 26, 27, 28 and February 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 8, 9, 10 , 11, 12, 16, 17, 18, 19, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26 and March 3. That’s 57 tickets.
Many tickets have sequential numbers, suggesting that no one else in the whole village has received a ticket in the meantime.
Pure fucking shit. Lawns much more congested than those of the Cozzi were left untreated.
The fact that the Village was not offering tickets to anyone else was not for lack of opportunity. The complaint is full of photos of other homes in the neighborhood. The surrounding lawns are adorned with used mattresses, a 15-foot skeleton with a Santa hat, trash, and trampolines. There are reindeer, swans, candy canes, stars, pergolas, tchotchkes and Christmas decorations in varying degrees of garishness. Not to mention plenty of garden furniture.
What were these lawns missing? Tickets.
The complaints allegedly at the origin of these fines? Non-existent.
Michael Cozzi filed a FOIA request for copies of the “anonymous complaints” in connection with the Cozzi home. On February 3, the Village replied that it had “no conforming documents”. For some reason the complaints could not be found.
The trial followed. And the court says these allegations are more than enough to overcome the barriers of various forms of immunity or “free from trial” cards that the Village (and its mayor) might try to play.
In this case, there is more than enough in the complaint to allege that the conduct was the act of a person with final decision-making authority. Mayor Serpico wielded power on behalf of the village and he used it to impose a policy and practice of punishing the Cozzi.
It’s the monell claim being supported. If someone wields as much power as this mayor and their actions (or blessing of actions) result in rights violations, the mayor can be held directly responsible for those rights violations. City policy is overseen by the mayor. And this particular mayor determined how the village of Melrose Park would be run and (if so) what laws would be selectively enforced to intimidate its critics.
Mayor Serpico wields considerable power in the village of Melrose Park. He is a “final decision maker and serves as the President” of the Village. He was mayor for over 20 years. He exercises executive authority within the village and the council “automatically approves” his recommendations for ordinances. The Council has rejected its legislative proposals (i.e. ordinances) only twice in 24 years. In short, he runs the city.
Guilty af, says the court.
If this case was a Monell crime scene, the mayor left his fingerprints, footprints and DNA all over the place.
Officers told the Cozzis the tickets were from “the mayor, not us.” Subsequent ticket deliveries arrived with the message that they were from the “boss” of the cops and “not from us”. According to his own testimony, his office had directly received complaints about the Cozzi’s property. (The complaints the city couldn’t produce when asked, notice.) In addition to everything else (and that includes the mayor’s taped rant laden with f-bombs to Michael Cozzi at a public meeting village), the mayor went out of his way to insert himself into this shitshow.
[I]n a particularly unfortunate episode, the mayor tried to start a fight with Michael Cozzi outside his home. The mayor told Cozzi to count on his blessings for the privilege of not getting beat up: “You’re lucky I’m not getting out of this car and beating your *ss.”
This was coupled with a racial slur:
“You are a jag off! You look like a damn shine on the 15th [avenue] because you do it to break fucking balls. That’s what you do. So fuck you. Kiss my ass !”
This complaint is upheld, says the court. And how.
Reading the complaint as a whole, it only takes one small step — not an inferential leap — to conclude that Mayor Serpico personally orchestrated the punitive ticketing campaign that befell the Cozzi family. The complaint paints a picture of state-sanctioned intimidation by the mayor, who implemented a policy of punishing dissent and having to comply. Taken together, the allegations support the conclusion that Mayor Serpico implemented a policy to punish, harass and intimidate the Cozzi family.
This will go before a jury. And, from what has been shown here, there is no doubt that Mayor Serpico is headed straight for a decision in favor of the plaintiff. At this point, Residents might as well pull a name out of the hat to fill Serpico’s position. They can’t do worse than the person they elected repeatedly.
Filed Under: illinois, lawn furniture, melrose park, michael cozzi, retaliation, ron serpico, tickets