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He writes the rules that make their eardrums ring

In Colorado, Municipal Judge Paul Sacco has a special punishment for people who blast their stereos: a night listening to Barry Manilow.

January 21, 2009|DeeDee Correll

FORT LUPTON, COLO. — The guiding principle in Municipal Judge Paul Sacco's courtroom is an eye for an eye. Or rather, an ear for an ear.

So when teenagers land in front of him for blasting their car stereos or otherwise disturbing the peace in this small northern Colorado city, Sacco informs them that they will spend a Friday evening in his courtroom listening to music -- of his choosing.

No, they can't pay a fine instead, he tells them. So, he adds with a snicker, ever heard of Barry Manilow?

For the last decade, Sacco, 55, has administered a brand of justice somewhere between "cruel" and "unusual."

Young people in Fort Lupton know that if they're caught, they're in for a night that could begin with the "Barney" theme song, move on to an opera selection and end with Boy George's "Do You Really Want to Hurt Me."

Sacco's answer to that last question: Yes, he does.

Or rather, he wants a little payback to the scofflaws blaring their tunes without regard for their neighbors -- a vexing habit in this blue-collar community of about 8,000, said Police Chief Ron Grannis.

For a while, Sacco -- a part-time judge who also has a law practice -- issued tickets, $95 apiece, to the noise violators. But one day, as he ordered a teenager to pay a fine, he realized the kid's parents, flanking him, would probably just pay it for him.

"It just seemed I was a rubber-stamper," he said. "I hate that."

What he really wanted to do, Sacco thought, was give the kid a dose of his own medicine. And the "music immersion" sentence was born.

The concept was simple: Stick the kids in a room -- on a night they'd rather be out socializing -- and turn up the volume.

Manilow immediately came to Sacco's mind. Not because he disliked Manilow, but because he knew they would. But the playlist also features other artists, mostly selected for their ability to annoy the younger set.

While Sacco -- himself a musician whose tastes run to Pink Floyd and Simon & Garfunkel -- acknowledges that vengeance is one motive, he has others. "The kids are exposed to music they would otherwise not hear," he said.

It's also his way of letting young people know he cares. Growing up in the Chicago area, he too had his share of scrapes, Sacco said. "But the cops cared about me. They didn't just throw a book at my head."

His music immersion program, he said, is his attempt to emulate that.

"They know I like them and care about them," said Sacco, although he did once make the offenders listen to a song he wrote and performed.

The Friday night sessions are run by Sacco's court administrator, Karen Cade, accompanied by a Taser-carrying bailiff.

On a recent Friday night, they greeted their offenders as they walked, slumped and scowling, through the metal detector at City Hall. While the ticketed are often teenagers, they include some adults.

Tyler North, 18, a high school senior, looked grim. "I wish I wasn't here," he said as he took a seat facing the speakers.

Eric Hart, 20, was more optimistic. How bad could it be? he wondered. "It's only an hour." Cade introduced herself, then pressed the play button on the small CD player in the center of the conference table. As the opening notes of the "Barney" song blared, her lips twitched.

Then came the "All In the Family" theme song and a nameless, screeching harmonica solo. The men squirmed. The bailiff did paperwork.

As Manilow crooned, "I write the songs that make the young girls cry," a couple of them looked like they might do just that. Gabriel Rocha, a 31-year-old construction worker, cracked his knuckles. Only Andrew Gehrig, 21, mouthed the words along with Manilow.

Bing Crosby. Beethoven's Ninth. When Branden Stinehelfer's head slumped toward his chest, the bailiff nudged him.

By the time Melanie sang "Brand New Key" (chorus: "I've got a brand new pair of roller skates"), every face looked pained.

At 8 p.m., there were still four songs to go, but the time was up. Cade hit stop, cutting off Willie Nelson mid-song.

"OK, we're done," she said. "I hope you've learned something from this."

The program's recidivism rate is less than 5%; once subjected to a night in City Hall, the offenders rarely return. Interestingly, the offense rate also seems to have plummeted recently, Cade said. Sacco sentenced 56 people to music in 2007; by 2008, that number had dropped to 20.

It works in the short term, said Grannis, the police chief. "They go back to doing what they're doing," he said, but they're more cautious about it.

"As soon as they see you, [the blaring car stereo] shuts off," said Grannis. "I really think it's a deterrent." He counts himself a fan of the program, though as a country music fan, he doesn't think Willie Nelson belongs on the playlist.

The latest crop of offenders said they won't let themselves get caught again.

"If you see a cop car, turn your volume down," said Gehrig, a convenience store clerk.

It could've been worse, he pointed out, with ABBA or 1980s hair metal.

"A little Manilow here and there," he confided, "isn't too terrible."

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