CHICAGO (CN) – The 7th Circuit revived claims that police harassed a man with 24 four bogus parking tickets over a 14-month period, forcing seven court appearances to clear his name.
Mark Geinosky began receiving tickets concerning his Toyota in October 2007, usually in batches of three or four at a time mailed to his home. All were written by officers of Chicago Police Department Unit 253, a “Targeted Response Unit,” which is supposed to focus on crime hotspots in the city.
Some tickets were inconsistent with each other, the court noted, “implying, for example, that the Toyota was in two places almost at once or was simultaneously double-parked and parked on the sidewalk.” Police sent at least four of the tickets after Geinosky had sold the car.
Geinosky complained to unit supervisors and the police department’s Internal Affairs Division, which closed the case without investigating. After the Chicago Tribune ran a series of stories on Geinosky’s plight, however, the case was reopened. Internal Affairs ultimately recommended the firing of three officers allegedly involved.
In the meantime, Geinosky filed suit, alleging civil conspiracy and violations of the equal protection and due process clauses.
U.S. District Judge John Darrah dismissed the suit, finding that Geinosky had failed to adequately demonstrate an actionable “class-of-one” equal protection claim.
The 7th Circuit reversed last week, calling the facts of the case “a disturbing pattern.”
“Absent a reasonable explanation, and none has even been suggested yet, the pattern adds up to deliberate and unjustified official harassment that is actionable under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment,” Judge David Hamilton wrote for a three-judge panel.
“Geinosky’s general allegation that defendants ‘intentionally treated plaintiff differently than others similarly situated’ is sufficient here, where the alleged facts so clearly suggest harassment by public officials that has no conceivable legitimate purpose,” he added. “To require more would elevate form over substance. Geinosky’s complaint states a class-of-one claim in light of the pattern of unjustified harassment he has alleged.”
Geinosky does not know why he was targeted, but suspects a connection between his estranged wife and the officers. Hamilton pointed out that his case would be just as strong regardless of whether the officers had a reason for targeting Geinosky for the harassment or if they selected him randomly.
“Geinosky’s general allegation that defendants ‘intentionally treated plaintiff differently than others similarly situated’ is sufficient here, where the alleged facts so clearly suggest harassment by public officials that has no conceivable legitimate purpose,” Hamilton wrote. “To require more would elevate form over substance. Geinosky’s complaint states a class-of-one claim in light of the pattern of unjustified harassment he has alleged.”
The court also reinstated Geinosky’s civil conspiracy claim, finding that random mistakes were unlikely to have caused so many baseless tickets.
“While the complaint makes only rather conclusory direct allegations of conspiracy, the complaint also alleges a pattern of harassment by several officers over a period of months,” Hamilton wrote. “It is a challenge to imagine a scenario in which that harassment would not have been the product of a conspiracy.”
Though the first 10 tickets Geinosky received are outside of the statute of limitations, the four associated officers cannot dismiss the claims because they are likely parties to his civil conspiracy claim.
“Law enforcement is a difficult and dangerous job and, in the case of parking and traffic tickets, often an especially thankless one,” Hamilton concluded. “Society grants considerable discretion to the public servants charged with that job… But a grant of discretion is a grant of trust. If officers betray that trust by deliberately targeting someone for harassment, that discrimination can violate our constitution.”
Geinosky is represented by Lawrence V. Jackowiak.