People v. Curtis Basile


AT 2, 11 & 13 order dated April 22, 2013, affirming judgment of conviction for failing to provide proper sustenance to an animal under Agriculture & Markets Law §353. Decision below: 40 Misc.3d 44, 970 NYS2d 658. Lippman, Ch. J., granted leave February 25, 2013. To be argued June 2, 2015.
ISSUE PRESENTED: Whether a violation of this statute requires no culpable mental state, so as to render defendant guilty even if he were financially unable to provide for his dog.

People v. Curtis Basile

Background Facts: An agent of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals went to the home of Curtis Basile to investigate potential mistreatment of a dog. The agent found the dog, apparently emaciated, tied to a lead in the backyard. Mr. Basile, the dog’s nineteen-year-old owner who had been out of work following an accident and was struggling to provide for himself and Danger, his dog, was charged with violating Agriculture and Markets Law § 353, which proscribes “depriv[ing] any animal of necessary sustenance, food or drink, or neglect[ing] or refus[ing] to furnish it such sustenance or drink, or caus[ing], procur[ing] or permit[ting] any animal to be overdriven, overloaded, tortured, cruelly beaten, or unjustifiably injured.”

At trial, the court refused to instruct that the jury must find that Mr. Basile knowingly committed any of these acts. In so charging, the court rendered the offense one of strict liability.

Issue: Among the issues raised on appeal was whether the jury could properly find a violation of this statute without determining that Mr. Basile possessed a culpable mental state. In other words, could he be strictly liable for a violation of § 353 notwithstanding that the Penal Law creates a strong presumption against strict liability?

Held:The Court chose not to reach the question of whether there can be strict liability for this offense, finding that the facts here showed that Mr. Basile violated the law “even assuming that defendant is correct” that the statute requires a showing of “knowledge.”

CAL Observes: The Court skirted the ultimate question of whether a defendant can be strictly liable where no mental state is specified in a criminal statute. Notably, Penal Law § 15.15(2) states, “[a] statute defining a crime, unless clearly indicating a legislative intent to impose strict liability, should be construed as defining a crime of mental culpability,” a mandate that “applies to offenses defined both in and outside this chapter.” Here, the jury was not instructed that it needed to find knowledge. Yet, the Court found that that oversight was immaterial, as Mr. Basile clearly could have been found guilty even were proof of knowledge required, as here the dog was in a “visibly compromised state of health.” In so holding, the Court essentially found facts for the jury, which had not been asked to decide this question.

The Court has similarly avoided the principal question in other recently litigated cases. For instance, in People v. Sandra Diaz, 24 N.Y.3d 1187 (2015), the Court declined to reach the issue of whether Penal Law § 260.20(1) (unlawfully dealing with a child) criminalized private possession of drugs in a parental bedroom outside the presence of children, instead finding that the facts presented to it made out the offense even under the defense theory about the statute’s meaning—that the possession must be open and commercially oriented.

This case is also notable for its de facto acceptance of the expansion of strict liability, notwithstanding Penal Law § 15.15’s clear presumption in favor of requiring a jury to find a culpable mental state. Though the Court demurred on this question, its decision to punt risks eroding the People’s burden of proving every element that the Legislature intended, which under Penal Law § 15.15 includes mens rea. It remains to be seen how the Court would handle a different—and perhaps ambiguous—set of facts.