States Tighten Dogfighting Laws
By Orr Shtuhl, Special to Stateline
The media storm surrounding the federal indictment last month of NFL star Michael Vick has sharpened the focus on weaknesses in the patchwork of state dogfighting laws and highlighted difficulties in enforcing them.
While a few states have laws with some teeth, in four states - Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho and Montana - attending a dogfight is legal. In 26 others, it's a misdemeanor.
The first three states above, along with Nevada and Wyoming, were ranked Wednesday (Sept. 12) as having the weakest state laws by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS).
Reaction to the widely publicized Vick case already is effecting change at the state level, even though he was prosecuted under a federal law against interstate dogfighting activities.
Lawmakers in Idaho and Wyoming, the only two states where organizing dogs to fight to the death is only a misdemeanor, are resurrecting bills to make it a felony.
Idaho state Rep. Tom Trail (R) had tried three times to boost the penalty for dogfighting. "I had no plans of bringing this bill up a fourth time - you know, three strikes you're out," Trail said. "But this new case has brought up a lot of public support."
This time around, Trail's efforts have won the support of Idaho Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter (R) and of state Sen. Brad Little (R), who plans to introduce a Senate version of the bill.
Activists in Indiana, one of the states where attending a dogfight is a misdemeanor, are pushing to make the offense a felony.
Texas lawmakers were working on beefing up their law even before the Vick case; under a new law that will take effect Sept. 1, attending a dogfight can be punished with up to a $4,000 fine and up to one year in jail.
Some states are forming task forces enlisting members from police, animal control and district attorney's offices among others to foster better training, enforcement and prosecution of dogfighting cases.
Although there's no national tally of enforcement numbers, Pet-Abuse.com , a Web site that attempts to keep track of dogfighting citations, recorded 167 police cases so far this year, on a pace ahead of 2006, when a total of 127 cases were filed against organizers, and 2005 with 129 cases.
Still, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and the Humane Society estimate there are as many as 40,000 people who stage organized dogfights in the country and many more having impromptu dogfights on the street.
Vick, who is scheduled to be sentenced Dec. 10 following his Aug. 27 guilty plea to a federal conspiracy charge, could face up to five years in prison, although prosecutors recommended 12 to18 months. Dogfighting is usually handled at the state level, but Vick's case was federally prosecuted because his operation crossed state borders.
Under federal law, it is a felony to organize a dogfight or participate in interstate commerce or activities related to animal fighting. Each offense - one per dog - is punishable by up to a $250,000 fine and a three-year jail term.
State laws in Oklahoma and Louisiana are the stiffest, carrying up to a $25,000 fine and 10 years in prison per offense.
But e ven in states where organizing or attending dogfights is a felony, law enforcers say that arresting and prosecuting participants are difficult because illegal dogfights often are entangled with drug or gang activity and that those who conduct raids aren't always trained to handle every situation.
Part of the problem is that many state laws do not specify whether the crimes fall under police or animal-control jurisdiction, sometimes resulting in lax enforcement.
South Carolina is one of the states hoping to remedy this with a dogfighting task force that reaches across departments to encourage communication and coordination. Since it was created in 2004 by South Carolina Attorney General Henry McMaster, the task force has found more than 350 dogs in fighting operations. For his efforts, the HSUS named McMaster the 2005 Humane Law Enforcement Officer of the Year.
Such task forces aim to compensate for shortcomings of any one department. For example, animal control officers, who often respond to dogfighting calls, are generally unarmed and unequipped to handle drug and gang activity. A Chicago Police study of incidents between 2001 and 2004 found that in 382 dogfighting cases, 59 percent of dog owners had gang affiliations and 86 percent had been arrested at least twice.
On the other hand, police officers leading a dogfight raid when they have no animal experience can throw the scene into chaos, making it difficult to get evidence of the dogs' ownership, enforcement officials say.
"That's where we're probably going to lose the war - we have a patrol car pull up with no experience," said police Maj. James Rood, who oversees the Baltimore Police Department's dogfighting task force, formed in July.
The strategy is slowly catching on with other law enforcement departments. The dogfighting task force in Harris County, Texas, which includes Houston, arranged for animal shelter personnel to train some police officers to better handle animal situations, and veterinarians to hold similar clinics at area law schools.
Before the task force's formation in September 2006, the county had not seen a single dogfighting case. In the past year, four cases have been prosecuted.
"I think the biggest hurdle was getting people to recognize we really needed to put some resources into this," said Belinda Smith, Harris County assistant district attorney. "Once we did that, the sailing's been a lot smoother."