People v. Knowles

CourtNew York District Court
Citation709 N.Y.S.2d 916,184 Misc.2d 474
PartiesTHE PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF NEW YORK, Plaintiff,<BR>v.<BR>KELLY M. KNOWLES, Defendant.
Decision Date15 May 2000

Kindlon & Shanks, P. C. (Terence L. Kindlon of counsel), for defendant.

Kenneth R. Bruno, District Attorney of Rensselaer County (Joel E. Abelove of counsel), for plaintiff.

OPINION OF THE COURT

PATRICK J. McGRATH, J.

The defendant has moved to dismiss the indictment pursuant to CPL 210.25 (3) based upon the allegation that the statute defining the offense is unconstitutional. Specifically, the defendant alleges that section 353-a of the Agriculture and Markets Law is unconstitutionally vague and overbroad, and, therefore, violates the due process provisions of the United States Constitution and the New York Constitution.

The void-for-vagueness doctrine requires that a penal statute define the criminal offense with sufficient definiteness that ordinary people can understand what conduct is prohibited and in a manner that does not encourage arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement. (Kolender v Lawson, 461 US 352, 357; People v Bright, 71 NY2d 376, 382.) A penal law statute must be sufficiently definite by its terms so as "to give a person of ordinary intelligence fair notice that his contemplated conduct is forbidden by the statute" (United States v Harriss, 347 US 612, 617; People v Bright, supra, at 382). The requirement that a penal law not permit arbitrary or discriminatory enforcement is, perhaps, the more important aspect of the vagueness doctrine (Kolender v Lawson, supra, at 358; People v Bright, supra, at 383).

To prevail on this claim, defendant must overcome the strong presumption of constitutionality which attaches to legislative enactments (People v Smith, 63 NY2d 41, 71; People v Davis, 43 NY2d 17, 30). This "weighty presumptive validity * * * is overborne only when the law is demonstrated to be invalid beyond a reasonable doubt (Matter of Van Berkel v Power, 16 NY2d 37, 40)." (People v Lang, 36 NY2d 366, 370.)

Turning to the specific language of the statute, section 353-a (1) of the Agriculture and Markets Law provides that "A person is guilty of aggravated cruelty to animals when, with no justifiable purpose, he or she intentionally kills or intentionally causes serious physical injury to a companion animal with aggravated cruelty. For purposes of this section, `aggravated cruelty' shall mean conduct which: (i) is intended to cause extreme physical pain; or (ii) is done or carried out in an especially depraved or sadistic manner."

The purpose of the statute was to provide stricter penalties for the most egregious animal abuse cases (NY Assembly Mem in Support of L 1999, ch 118, 1999 McKinney's Session Laws of NY, at 1584). The law, known as "Buster's Law," was named after a Schenectady cat that was doused with kerosene and set on fire. It was also noted in the Governor's Memorandum that such egregious animal abuse was not isolated since other defenseless animals had been thrown from windows, used for target practice, subjected to hangings and starved (Governor's Mem approving L 1999, ch 118, 1999 McKinney's Session Laws of NY, at 1468).

Prior to the enactment of section 353-a of the Agriculture and Markets Law the only law punishing animal cruelty was the misdemeanor charge of section 353 of the Agriculture and Markets Law. In relevant part, the statute provided that: "A person who overdrives, overloads, tortures or cruelly beats or unjustifiably injures, maims, mutilates or kills any animal, whether wild or tame, and whether belonging to himself or to another, or deprives any animal of necessary sustenance, food or drink, or neglects or refuses to furnish it such sustenance or drink, or causes, procures or permits any animal to be overdriven, overloaded, tortured, cruelly beaten, or unjustifiably injured, maimed, mutilated or killed, or to be deprived of necessary food or drink, or who wilfully sets on foot, instigates, engages in, or in any way furthers any act of cruelty to any animal, or any act tending to produce such cruelty, is guilty of a misdemeanor." Section 350 (2) of the Agriculture and Markets Law defines torture or cruelty to include "every act, omission, or neglect, whereby unjustifiable physical pain, suffering or death is caused or permitted."

The defendant asserts that while the phrase "aggravated cruelty" is defined within section 353-a, the phrase is still impermissibly vague because terms within the definition are undefined. The phrase "extreme physical pain" is not defined nor is the meaning of "especially depraved or sadistic manner."

Where a statutory term is not defined in the statute itself, the common meaning of the term is to be applied (see, McKinney's Cons Laws of NY, Book 1, Statutes § 232; Matter of Vernon Woods Dev. Corp. v Pucillo, 134 AD2d 597 [2d Dept 1987]). Unskilled draftsmanship alone is no ground for declaring a statute void, and if an intent can be spelled out fairly from the words used, effect will be given to that intent, although such intent is not artistically expressed (see, McKinney's Cons Laws of NY, Book 1, Statutes § 361).

Failure to define every word in a criminal statute does not make the statute unconstitutionally vague (see, People v Nelson, 69 NY2d 302 [where the Court of Appeals held that the jostling statute, Penal Law § 165.25, was not void for vagueness even though the terms "unnecessarily" or "proximity" were not defined]; People v Bergerson, 17 NY2d 398, 403-404 [where the Court of Appeals held that former Penal Law § 483 (2) (now § 260.10, endangering the welfare of a child) was not unconstitutionally vague even though the language of the statute, "endangering of the life, limb, health or morals of a child," was not specifically defined]; People v Miller, 106 AD2d 787 [3d Dept 1984] [finding the promoting prison contraband statute, Penal Law § 205.25, not to be unconstitutionally vague]; People v Ali, 144 Misc 2d 543 [finding current Penal Law § 260.10 not to be unconstitutionally vague]; People v Gordon, 107 Misc 2d 248 [where the definition of physical injury set forth in Penal Law § 10.00 (9) was not unconstitutionally vague even though the term "substantial pain" was not defined]). The Constitution does not preclude the use of ordinary terms to express ideas which find adequate interpretation in common usage and understanding (People v Byron, 17 NY2d 64, 67).

In addition to being vague for failure to define the above terms, defendant also asserts that the definition set forth in section 350 (2) makes the meaning of aggravated cruelty "even more confusing." However, the definitions of "aggravated cruelty" and "cruelty" are separate and distinct. The fact that the word torture commonly refers to the causing of severe pain, whereas section 350 only requires physical pain, in no way affects the definition of aggravated cruelty. Such is the case since they are mutually exclusive definitions and common meaning of a term is only relevant when the term is not defined by the statute.

Turning to defendant's additional objections, the term "extreme physical pain" uses ordinary terms to express ideas that find adequate interpretation in everyday usage and understanding (People v Byron, supra; People v Cruz, 48 NY2d 419). The term "extreme physical pain" is not so vague that men of...

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  • Valencia ex rel. Franco v. Lee
    • United States
    • U.S. Court of Appeals — Second Circuit
    • January 21, 2003
  • State v. Baxter
    • United States
    • Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals
    • March 25, 2013
    ...is not unconstitutionally vague since it 'describes a condition which most people of common intelligence can understand.'"); People v. Knowles, 709 N.Y.S.2d 916, 920 (Rensselaer County Court 2000) (citation omitted) ("The term 'extreme physical pain' is not 'so vague that men of common inte......
  • People v. Arroyo
    • United States
    • New York Criminal Court
    • March 4, 2004
    ...v Fischer, supra; People v Nelson, supra.) A statute is not vague merely because it fails to define a word or term. (People v Knowles, 184 Misc 2d 474, 477 [Rensselaer County Ct 2000].) Similarly, a statute does not need to designate every particular situation or circumstance that calls for......
  • People v. Arroyo, 2004 NY Slip Op 24067 (NY 3/4/2004)
    • United States
    • New York Court of Appeals Court of Appeals
    • March 4, 2004
    ...v. Fischer, supra; People v. Nelson, supra.) A statute is not vague merely because it fails to define a word or term. (People v. Knowles, 184 Misc 2d 474, 477 [Rensselaer County Ct 2000].) Similarly, a statute does not need to designate every particular situation or circumstance that calls ......
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