City officials say they’re willing to pardon an Uptown pooch which a city building inspector says bit her earlier this spring. But the dog’s owner, astrologer, radio show host and investigative journalist Eric Francis Coppolino, says he wants the charge against him thrown out and the city to institute a written dog policy and new training for inspectors, so both city employees and pet owners will avoid future conflicts.
As a result, the city is embroiled a legal battle centered on a 10-year-old, 13-pound longhaired dachshund named Jonah.
The incident occurred in April when, according to court papers, city building inspector Jill Gagliardi showed up at Coppolino’s residence and studio on North Front Street to conduct a routine inspection. According to Coppolino’s account of the incident, when his assistant opened the door to the studio, Gagliardi “marched right in” past Jonah and another dog without announcing who she was or why she was there.
Gagliardi, according to court documents, claims that one of the dogs reacted to her sudden intrusion with a quick nip at her leg. But, countered Coppolino, there is no indication Gagliardi was actually injured and the city has offered no medical documentation.
After the incident, Coppolino, a Kingston resident for the past 10 years who’s the astrologer for Chronogram, the New York Daily News and the Omega Institute, was cited under a city ordinance that bans “harboring a dangerous dog.” The ordinance defines a dangerous dog as any dog which “bites, inflicts injury, assaults or otherwise attacks a human being without provocation in public or private property.” Owners of dogs that have been deemed dangerous are required under the law to post signs on their property warning others about the animal’s propensity for violence.
City Assistant Corporation Counsel Daniel Gartenstein, who serves as prosecutor for violations of city ordinances, said he’s followed routine procedure in what he said was an open-and-shut violation of dog law. Gartenstein offered to drop the charge after a six-month waiting period, with no other requirements or stipulations. Coppolino is seeking an immediate dismissal.
“The city made a very, very reasonable offer to resolve this matter,” said Gartenstein. “I don’t look to euthanize dogs, I don’t look to confiscate dogs. All we want is the owner to make reasonable assurances that it won’t happen again.”
Coppolino said Gartenstein never asked him to make those assurances. Coppolino has engaged attorney and current state Supreme Court candidate Julian Schreibman to fight this case in city court and, Coppolino says, beyond if need be. Now the issue is before City Court Judge Phillip Kirschner, who must weigh Schreibman’s motion to dismiss the case and Gartenstein’s petition that it be allowed to move forward.
Schreibman claims that the accusatory instrument filed by the city in the case is fatally flawed in that it does not cite a specific subdivision of dog law that Coppolino could have violated. On a section of pre-printed form reserved for a narrative of the violation, Gagliardi wrote, “I was conducting an inspection @ the above location, front Apt. when the dogs came running over and the brown one bit me on my hand and leg. When I told them a man called them over.”
Schreibman’s motion notes that the city’s dangerous dog code does not apply to any dog that bites anyone for any reason. Since there is no evidence that Jonah had previously bitten anyone there is no way that the “dangerous dog” designation could be applied to him in Gagliardi’s case, and no action that Coppolino could possibly have taken or not taken to violate the law.
“Because the accusatory instrument does not allege conduct prohibited by law, it must be dismissed,” Schreibman wrote. He added, “The statute, for rather obvious reasons, does not regulate the dog’s conduct at all, nor does it make the owner vicariously liable for the dog’s conduct.”
Brought in to support Coppolino and Jonah’s case was a letter from Ward Stone, the well-known retired state Department of Environmental Conservation wildlife pathologist.
Jonah, wrote Stone, is “middle aged and has been masticating food that has worn much of the sharpness from [his] teeth, including wear on the canine teeth. Puncture wounds, are, therefore, impossible.”
A little later in the letter, Stone wrote, “It sounds like the inspector could use some training in handling inspection of spaces containing dogs. The entry of the inspector to the premises was a provocation to the little dog to nip the inspector.”
(According to documents provided by Coppolino which he got through Freedom of Information Law requests, the city does not have training programs in place to teach municipal code enforcement officers how to deal with dogs they come across as part of their job.)
Coppolino, meanwhile, said that he will not be satisfied with dismissal of the charge. He’s seeking a written policy for city inspectors on how to deal with dogs. He also wants the inspectors to undergo training with a qualified professional on how to handle dog encounters. Coppolino called the city’s dog law “antiquated” and claimed that, as it’s currently enforced, it could be used to prosecute people whose pets attack an intruder or someone who sticks their hand uninvited through an open car window.
“The city is putting the community on notice that it has a magical ability to come into your home, frighten your pet, then drag you into court and try to collect $500,” said Coppolino.
Gartenstein has filed his own motion against the request to dismiss the charge. In it, he argues that the dog biting Gagliardi — which Coppolino says didn’t happen — is sufficient to establish that Coppolino violated the law by keeping a dog that bites. Gartenstein declined to discuss specifics of the case, but said it was no different from similar citations routinely issued by the city.
“There is absolutely nothing interesting about this case,” said Gartenstein. “Other than the fact that Mr. Coppolino is Mr. Coppolino.”