California law makes it a criminal offense to willfully poison an animal belonging to someone else without their consent. This statute is codified under Penal Code 596 PC.
In other words, this law makes it a misdemeanor crime to poison another person's animal intentionally. Notably, it's legal for someone to keep poisoned bait on their property to destroy predatory animals if they post proper warning signage.
PC 596 says, “Every person who, without the consent of the owner, willfully administers poison to any animal, the property of another, or exposes any poisonous substance, with the intent that the same shall be taken or swallowed by any such animal, is guilty of a misdemeanor.
However, the provisions of this section shall not apply in the case of a person who exposes poisonous substances upon premises or property owned or controlled by him for the purpose of controlling or destroying predatory animals or livestock-killing dogs and if, prior to or during the placing out of such poisonous substances, he shall have posted upon the property conspicuous signs located at intervals of distance not greater than one-third of a mile apart and in any case, not less than three such signs having words with letters at least one-inch high reading “Warning--Poisoned bait placed out on these premises,” which signs shall be kept in place until the poisonous substances have been removed.
Whenever such signs have been conspicuously located on the property or premises owned or controlled by him as hereinabove provided, such person shall not be charged with any civil liability to another party in the event that any domestic animal belonging to such party becomes injured or killed by trespassing or partaking of the poisonous substance or substances so placed.”
If you are convicted under this law, you could face up to six months in jail and fines of up to $1000. You could also be independently liable for civil damages to the owner to compensate for their loss.
PC 596 - Explained
PC 596 specifically makes it a crime to do either of the following:
- To willfully administer poison to someone else's animal; or
- To leave the poison exposed with the intent that the animal will find and consume it.
To secure a conviction under Penal Code 596 PC, the prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt the following elements of the crime:
- The Act: You willfully administered poison to someone else's animal or left the poison out for the animal to find. This includes any harmful substance that can cause illness or death.
- Intent: You acted with the willful intent to harm the animal. It's not enough to show that you acted recklessly or negligently; there must be evidence of a deliberate intention to cause harm.
What Are the Exceptions to the Rule?
PC 596 explicitly exempts a person from criminal or civil liability for poisoning an animal if the following specific conditions exist:
- You placed the poison on your property (or a property you manage) to kill predatory animals or livestock-eating dogs; AND
- You placed appropriate, easily-read warning signage at least every one-third mile along your property line stating, "Warning–Poisoned bait placed out on these premises."
In other words, you cannot be prosecuted for placing poison on your own property to protect your interests, provided that you fulfill your duty of care to warn other animal owners of the existence of the poison. If you take these steps, you cannot be sued for the injury or death of someone's animal.
What Are Some Examples?
EXAMPLE 1: John, a disgruntled neighbor, disapproves of his next-door neighbor's dog barking late at night. He decides to retaliate by mixing a toxic substance into some food and throwing it over the fence into the neighbor's yard, intending to harm the dog. The dog eats the food, becomes ill, and needs veterinary treatment. In this case, John has committed a prosecutable violation of PC 596 as he intentionally poisoned an animal.
EXAMPLE 2: Tom, an elderly gentleman, regularly feeds the neighborhood cats. One day, he mistakenly pours cleaning liquid instead of milk into a bowl due to poor eyesight. A cat drinks from the bowl and gets sick. In this scenario, although an animal was harmed due to Tom's action, he did not intentionally poison the cat. Therefore, this incident would not be prosecutable as a crime under PC 596 because intent to harm is a crucial element of this offense.
What Are the Related Laws?
Several California laws are related to Penal Code 596 poisoning someone's animal, including the following:
- Penal Code 597 PC animal abuse and cruelty laws make it a crime to maliciously and intentionally harm, maim, torture, or kill an animal. If you administer poison to an animal and the animal suffers, is permanently injured, or dies, you could be potentially charged with animal abuse. PC 597 is a "wobbler," which can be prosecuted as a misdemeanor or a felony. If convicted, you could face substantially higher penalties than if you were convicted under PC 596 alone;
- Penal Code 597.5 PC – dogfighting;
- Penal Code 597.7 PC - leaving an animal in an unattended vehicle;
- Penal Code 597a PC - transport animals in a cruel or inhumane manner;
- Penal Code 597t PC – confined animals;
- Penal Code 286.5 PC – sexual abuse of animals.
What Are the Penalties for PC 596?
Poisoning someone else's animal is a misdemeanor offense. If found guilty under Penal Code 596 PC, you could face the following penalties:
- Up to six months in county jail; and
- Up to $1000 in fines.
The judge has the latitude to consider specific circumstances and may impose summary probation instead of jail time.
What Are the Defenses for PC 596?
If you're charged under PC 596, an experienced California criminal defense attorney can employ several defenses to combat the charge, as discussed below.
Perhaps we can argue that there was a lack of intent. Prosecutors must prove that you willfully intended to poison the animal; the element of intent is crucial, and the fact that the animal was poisoned is irrelevant without proving intent.
If your attorney can show that you had no such intent, this could lead to an acquittal. This might involve demonstrating that the poisoning was accidental or unintentional.
Perhaps we can argue that there was consent from the owner: If the animal owner permitted the defendant to administer the substance, this could serve as a defense.
However, if the animal suffered as a result, it would not necessarily absolve you from possible charges of animal abuse under PC 597, so this defense needs to be implemented cautiously.
Perhaps we can argue that you qualify for the exception: If your attorney can show you left poison on your property and posted the appropriate warnings, you cannot be convicted under PC 596.
Perhaps we can negotiate with the prosecutor prefiling to prevent criminal charges from being filed (DA reject). Contact us for a case review. Eisner Gorin LLP has offices in Los Angeles, California.