ACLU Defens NJ Woman Held in Contempt for Parking Ticket Comment

April 12, 1999 12:00 am

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Monday, April 12, 1999

NEWARK, NJ — A New Jersey woman who was found in contempt of court for writing “Highway Robbery Fund” on a check in payment of a parking ticket will now have her day in court, the American Civil Liberties Union said today.

Mary Novak of Elmwood Park wrote the comment on the memo portion of her check in payment of a $9 late fee for a $19 parking ticket. As a result, she was ordered by Elmwood Park Municipal Magistrate Anthony D. Cipollone to explain why she should not be held in contempt.

Acting on the woman’s behalf, the Rutgers Law School Constitutional Litigation Clinic and the ACLU of New Jersey are challenging the jurisdiction of the magistrate to issue a contempt charge under these circumstances.

“Ms. Novak did nothing more than exercise her free speech rights under the federal and state constitutions,” said Rutgers attorney Frank Askin. “We believe the judge is acting beyond his jurisdiction and authority and have asked the Superior Court to prohibit him from proceeding with the contempt charge.”

Lenora Lapidus, Legal Director of the ACLU of New Jersey, called Judge Moses’ order a significant step in defense of free speech for citizens of New Jersey. “This is not the first time we defended a citizen who is ordered to come before a municipal judge and apologize for their speech because they express their annoyance about a traffic or parking ticket.”

“Even when the contempt charges are dismissed, these defendants are publicly humiliated and inconvenienced, and may suffer other costs including attorney fees,” she added. “We urge the Superior Court to put a stop to this practice and remind local magistrates that they and their courts are not above criticism by the citizens they serve.”

According to the complaint filed by the Rutgers Law Clinic and the ACLU, Novak became annoyed when a court clerk responded rudely to a telephone inquiry about the $9 late fee after she had paid for the original parking fine. Novak was told that normally the late fee is $10, but one dollar had been deducted because the amount of the original fine had been misstated on the back of the ticket and should only have been $18.

When she did not receive a satisfactory explanation as to the normal disposition of the dollar overcharge, she commented that it probably went into a “highway robbery fund.” She then wrote those words on the check for the late fee.

Novak insists that she meant no disrespect to the court but was merely expressing her annoyance at the administration of the parking regulations.

Askin and his Rutgers students, along with the ACLU of New Jersey, handled a similar case last July in Morristown Municipal Court on behalf of a motorist who wrote “legal extortion” on his check in payment of three overdue parking tickets.

That case was dismissed by the magistrate after a highly publicized hearing at which Askin represented the defendant.

“If these defendants can afford to hire a lawyer or are lucky enough to find a pro bono lawyer, then these cases are ultimately dismissed, “Askin said. “If not, they often wind up paying a fine. This system is totally unfair to the people of New Jersey and it is time to put an end to the practice.”

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