Circuit Court of Champaign County No. 98CM481
Honorable Jeffrey B. Ford, Judge Presiding.
JUSTICE STEIGMANN delivered the opinion of the court:
In April 1998, the State charged defendant, Larry Soliday, with criminal damage to property (720 ILCS 5/21-1(1)(d) (West 1998)). In June 1998, the trial court dismissed the State's charge. The State appeals, arguing that (1) dismissal was improper because the charge met the pleading requirements set forth in section 111-3 of the Code of Criminal Procedure of 1963 (Procedural Code) (725 ILCS 5/111-3 (West 1998)); and (2) the court violated standards of impartiality and the principle of separation of powers by assuming the role of prosecutor and voicing strong disapproval of the State's choice of charges. We reverse and remand.
In April 1998, the State filed an information alleging that "defendant committed the offense of criminal damage to property--[a] [C]lass A misdemeanor, in that [he] knowingly injured a domestic animal of Champaign County Rottweiler Rescue [(RR)], namely: Tritan, without the consent of the [RR], the said damage not exceeding $300.00."
In June 1998, defendant filed a motion to dismiss, asserting that, as a matter of law, he could not be found guilty of criminal damage to property because the dog was his property and not "the property of another" as required by section 21-1(1)(d) of the Criminal Code of 1961 (Criminal Code) (720 ILCS 5/21-1(1)(d) (West 1998)). Defendant attached to his motion a copy of a written agreement between himself and RR, which obligated him to satisfy various conditions related to Tritan's care. The agreement provided that his violation of some of the conditions would result in Tritan's return to RR.
Later in June 1998, the State filed a response to defendant's motion, alleging the following. In March 1998, defendant shot Tritan multiple times with a handgun after he urinated and defecated in defendant's residence. Defendant misinformed RR that Tritan had been hit and killed by a car, but later defendant admitted that he had shot Tritan. Defendant returned Tritan's body to RR wrapped in a bloody, debris-covered sheet. The State conceded that defendant had a possessory interest in Tritan but maintained that RR retained a proprietary interest in the dog pursuant to its agreement with defendant. According to the State, a charge of criminal damage to property may be sustained when the accused has an interest in property with another and has defeated or impaired the other's interest.
At the June 1998 hearing on defendant's motion to dismiss, the State attempted to show that RR had an interest in Tritan. The trial court granted defendant's motion to dismiss. The court explained its ruling as follows.
"Let's start with the obvious. This is not a charge of cruel treatment to animals. I believe that the people who testified, [RR], are interested, as everyone should be, in animals not being treated cruelly. And if the defendant was charged with that, we wouldn't all be here. No person or owner may beat, cruelly treat, torture, starve, overwork or otherwise abuse any animal. No owner may abandon any animal or become a public charge (unintelligible) suffer injury, hunger[,] or exposure. That would be appropriate to what we have here. The State's Attorney's [o]ffice sought not to charge this [d]efendant with the obvious. They decided 'we're going to try a new legal theory and charge this defendant.' And that's what we have here. We don't have the defendant charged with, apparently, what the State is saying he did. We are here, apparently, because we want to get a higher penalty on this person, which means we don't like the law and the charge and the amount of penalty that you can have under the animal section. ***
*** [I]f this contract is ambiguous--and if this is a contract[,] it is very ambiguous--ah, then the State can't prove it beyond a reasonable doubt. Contract interpretation is a matter of law. It's not a matter for jurors to determine at this point. ***
When you talk about possessory interest and the State has continued to argue that [RR] has a possessory interest in this, it is not a possessory interest. *** They have attempted in this poorly worded document to retain some sort of interest. At best some sort of reverter interest. That's not a possessory interest. The plain language says 'that this defendant is the new owner.' The plain language says 'he is the adopter,' which means he's the owner. Not only is he the owner, but he's the possessor of the dog. *** We are trying to take this vaguely worded agreement and say this is our dog, we have a current possessory interest in it, and therefore, Mr. Soliday cannot do anything we don't like. And if we don't like what he does then we will charge criminal damage to property[.] ***
[W]e are taking this well beyond what would appear the intent of the law is. We are trying to bootstrap this writing into some sort of possessory interest and it just doesn't appear that way."
The court then stated that it would not "formally" dismiss the case but would allow the State to file a motion for reconsideration, an appeal to the appellate court, or a different charge against defendant.
In July 1998, the State appealed the dismissal, and in June 1999, this court dismissed the appeal because the trial court's order did not have the substantive effect of dismissing the charge. People v. Soliday, No. 4-98-0551 (June 14, 1999) (unpublished order under Supreme Court Rule 23). In August 1999, the State moved for entry of a final appealable order, and in September 1999, the trial ...