Judge reverses course, drops charges for parking-ticket comment

Thursday, April 15, 1999

An Elmwood Park, N.J., woman no longer faces contempt charges for writing “Hwy. Robbery Fund” on her check to express her disgust over a parking ticket.

Elmwood Park Municipal Magistrate Anthony D. Cipollone dismissed charges this week against Mary Novak, eight days after she filed a superior court lawsuit against him.

Cipollone had ordered Novak to his court on April 20 to face contempt charges after she wrote the comment on the memo line of her check when paying a $9.00 late fee on a parking ticket.

In response to the contempt charges, Novak — with assistance from the Constitutional Litigation Clinic at Rutgers University and the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey — filed a lawsuit on April 5 in state superior court. She alleged that the magistrate “abused his authority and acted beyond his jurisdiction” in ordering her to come to court on contempt charges.

Novak alleged in her complaint that her “free speech interests have been adversely affected” by the unconstitutional actions of the magistrate.

Lenora Lapidus, legal director for the New Jersey ACLU, said: “This was a First Amendment violation because she was being punished for expressing an opinion about having to pay the fine. As a result of expressing that opinion, she was cited for contempt.”

On April 8, Superior Court Judge Sybil R. Moses issued an order requiring Cipollone to appear before her court today to show cause for issuing the contempt charges against Novak. Cipollone dismissed the contempt charges on April 13, and no longer has to appear before the superior court.

Frank Askin, head of the Constitutional Litigation Clinic, hailed the dismissal of the contempt charges. “This is absolutely a victory for free speech,” Askin said. “The real message in this case is that municipal magistrates — who sometimes think they are God because they wear black robes — must adhere to the Constitution.”

Last year Askin successfully represented another New Jersey citizen who wrote the words “legal extortion” on the back of a $153.00 check for overdue parking tickets.

Askin says that unfortunately municipal court magistrates often trample on the free-speech rights of citizens who think they have no recourse other than to pay the fines.

He says he hopes the case of Novak v. Cipollone will change that.