ITHACA, N.Y.—In an unusual turn of events, the City of Ithaca government is suing to nullify the decision of one of its elected City Court judges that dismissed 1,682 tickets for property maintenance violations, totaling an unclear amount of money.

Ithaca judge Seth Peacock officially made the ruling in January 2022, partially citing a law that appears to nullify the tickets, which have to do with the Exterior Property Maintenance Order, because of their method of delivery. Criminal Procedure Law 150.40 states that appearance tickets must be served to the accused party “personally,” which Peacock interprets to mean in-person as opposed to via mail. The City, though, mails their property violation tickets.

“An appearance ticket issued for violation of a local zoning ordinance or building or sanitation code violation may be served in the manner for service of a summons, as set forth in the Civil Practice Law and Rules 08,” Peacock wrote. “Regular mail is not authorized by CPLR 308.”

There’s quite a bit of legal jargon that follows dealing with when exactly the city’s jurisdiction starts regarding appearance tickets, but that passage is the gist of the ruling. Peacock also ruled that building code tickets “were misleading in appearance by including instructions to pay penalty by mail and did not adequately convey that the city is bringing a criminal action.”

The end result was a long list of tickets being completely dismissed and court staff thus declining to honor the tickets, including not accepting guilty pleas or payments submitted in accordance with the tickets. The tickets pertain to snow or ice on a sidewalk, garbage violations, unlicensed vehicle stored on property, shopping carts on sidewalks, high grass and more. The dismissed tickets date back to at least one from July 2015.

The City filed Article 78 proceedings on Feb. 14, seeking “immediate relief to prevent irreparable harm to the City’s ability to enforce its Exterior Property Maintenance Ordinance.” An Article 78 petition asks New York State to intervene in an administrative decision made by a lower body. The petition asks for the state court to throw out Peacock’s ruling, prevent the city court from dismissing future tickets and compelling the court to accept guilty and non-guilty pleas to EPMO tickets.

A resident made their feelings vividly clear on the importance of snow clearing and shoveling earlier this week. (Photo by Mattie Hause via Facebook)

The petition also states that the court actually stopped recognizing EPMO tickets on October 27, 2021, and that the decision has resulted in “hundreds” of backlogged tickets — indicating a strange dynamic where the city is issuing tickets that its own court won’t honor.

City Prosecutor Bob Sarachan’s petition states that the EPMO is how the city enforces property owners to keep their spaces “free of garbage, lawns cut, sidewalks shoveled and free of other unsightly, unsafe and hazardous conditions.”

Peacock’s decision, originally issued on Jan. 24, 2022, states that the court and city have been at odds over EPMO issues since 2018. He, and court clerk Sheryl Kumpf (who is also named as a defendant in the proceedings), both declined to comment.

The city further argues that, in accordance with Peacock’s decision, the court has begun “refusing to accept guilty pleas from ticket recipients who desire to pay their fines, waiving arraignment and trial and refusing to accept not guilty pleas from ticket recipients whose tickets would then proceed to trial.”

Regarding the decision to appeal to a higher body, Lavine provided a statement that again boosted the significance of the EPMO and signaled the city’s willingness to fight Peacock’s ruling.

“The City is aware of City Court Judge Peacock’s recent decision summarily dismissing all tickets issued under the City’s Exterior Property Maintenance Ordinance by rejecting the procedures followed for decades by City Court and the City in enforcing rules basic to life in Ithaca: cut the grass, clean up the garbage, shovel the sidewalk,” Lavine said. “The City is appealing this decision and will vigorously seek judicial approval for continued enforcement of the ordinance, which is essential to maintaining quality of life, health and safety in the city.”

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is the Managing Editor at the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached by email at mbutler@ithacavoice.com