Judge rules Kingston’s dangerous dog law defective

A Kingston City Court judge has thrown out the case against alleged dangerous dog Jonah the dachshund and his owner, uptown astrologer, investigative reporter and provocateur Eric Francis Coppolino. In his Aug. 28 decision, Judge Phillip Kirschner agreed with defense arguments that the city’s dangerous dog law, as currently written, is fatally flawed and unenforceable.

Kirschner’s decision brings to a close a legal fight that began back in April when city building inspector Jill Gagliardi reported that the 10-year-old 13-pound longhaired dachshund bit her hand and leg while she was conducting a routine inspection of Coppolino’s North Front Street studio and residence. Coppolino later claimed that Jonah and another dog reacted after Gagliardi entered the residence abruptly and unannounced. Gagliardi filed charges against Coppolino under a city ordinance that 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 dangerous dogs are required to post warning signs on their property and take other precautions to prevent attacks.

Kingston Assistant Corporation Counsel Dan Gartenstein, who serves as prosecutor for violations of city ordinances, offered Coppolino what he said was a standard deal for violations of the dog law that do not involve repeat infractions or serious injury — in exchange for a guilty plea, the charge would be dismissed in six months provided Jonah stayed out of trouble. Instead, Coppolino engaged attorney and current state Supreme Court candidate Julian Schreibman to launch an all-out assault on the dog law. Coppolino said that he was prepared to fight the charge using everything from eyewitness accounts of the incident to expert witnesses on animal behavior.

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“I worked on this case as diligently as any that I’ve ever covered,” Coppolino wrote in a prepared statement. “Using what I have learned from the attorneys who have trained me in discovery practice, I built a comprehensive case file, gathered witnesses and was ready for additional motions and for trial, had it somehow gone that far.”

Instead, Kirschner dismissed the case by finding that the law itself was defective. Kirschner ruled that while the ordinance laid out a definition of a dangerous dog and penalties for violations, there is no specific language specifying that it is illegal to harbor one. In his ruling, Kirschner rejected Gartenstein’s claim that the illegality of harboring a dangerous dog was implied by the definition and penalties.

“The court finds that the accusatory instrument is facially insufficient and cannot be cured by any correction or amendment thereto,” wrote Kirschner.

Coppolino said that he and Schreibman had taken on the case to protect city residents from an overbroad law that could theoretically be used against anyone whose dog bites anybody for any reason. The law, he said, could even be applied to people whose pets attack burglars or to protect their owners from assault.

“Our intent in refusing a plea bargain and taking this case to the logical end was specifically to protect other dog owners who might not be in a position to fight.”

Revisions in the works

Gartenstein said this week that he planned to take a revised version of the dangerous dog law before the Common Council’s Laws and Rules Committee to fix the defect cited by Kirschner. Gartenstein downplayed the significance of Kirschner’s decision saying that the city had already gotten what it had hoped for in the plea offer — no further reports of dachshund attacks on North Front Street for six months.

“The [city code] is far from perfect and we certainly appreciate this issue being brought to our attention,” said Gartenstein. “But it doesn’t change the underlying matter. Basically it accomplished exactly what it was meant to accomplish.”

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