by Gregg Lee

Mary Novak of Elmwood Park, NJ practiced free speech in word and deed, and now is facing a contempt of court charge.  Novak, inquiring about a late fee of nine dollars on a nineteen dollar parking fine, was told only that "normally the charge is ten dollars."  Novak was further informed that the original fine should have been one dollar less, and that dollar overcharge was deducted from her late fee.  When Novak asked what would have happened to the dollar had there NOT been a late fee, she received a less than satisfactory explanation and commented that it most likely went into a "highway robbery fund."  Novak included that phrase in the memo portion of her nine dollar check.

But Elmwood Park Magistrate Anthony Cipollone didn't find Novak's comment amusing.  He also didn't feel it fell within her rights under the First Amendment.   Cipollone called Novak to court to make her explain why he shouldn't hold her in contempt of court.

This isn't the first time a citizen has had to answer to such charges. Lenora Lapidus of the New Jersey ACLU adds that even when the charges are dropped, the defendant is "publicly humiliated and inconvenienced, and may suffer other costs including attorney's fees."

Attorney Frank Askin and the Rutgers Law School Constitutional Litigation Clinic, along with the Jersey ACLU, are challenging the jurisdiction of a magistrate to issue a contempt charge in these circumstances.   Askin asserts that Ms. Novak "did nothing but exercise her free speech rights."

So, is this what it comes to?  Municipal Judges are now getting their jollies by calling people to answer for voicing their frustrations with the system?  So every time someone in Elmwood Park says to a meter maid, "you gotta be kidding me!", this lox of a judge is going to hold them in contempt?  ROC thinks that's pretty damned contemptuous.

If you've been in a similar situation, or would like to offer support or volunteer, contact the New Jersey ACLU:

ACLU of New Jersey
35 Halsey Street
Newark, NJ 07102

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