JEFFERSON CITY – In the wake of former NFL star Michael Vick's imprisonment for the crime, two bills were referred to the Senate General Laws Committee that would toughen penalties for those who attend and organize dog fights. They would also attempt to reduce the backlog of seized dogs in Missouri by forcing them out of state custody 30 days after they are removed in connection with an illegal fighting ring.
The bill, introduced by Sen. Scott Rupp, R-St. Charles County, would increase the second-offense penalty for being a spectator at a dog fight from a misdemeanor to a felony. It would also repeal the statute requiring the state to hold on to all dogs seized in a suspected violation until the case is resolved in court. Instead, the state would be required to hold a disposition hearing within 30 days to decide whether the dog would be returned to its owner, placed in a shelter or killed – if it is determined to be diseased or disabled beyond recovery.
Rupp introduced a similar bill last year that was rolled into a bill that would have also allowed Missourians to kill dogs that trespassed onto their property had they reported the dogs at least twice to county authorities and felt an "imminent" danger. That legislation never came up for a vote in committee. Rupp said he didn't understand why there was a provision in state law that excused seized dogs from the 30-day disposition hearing requirement.
"Missouri law currently requires dogs to be held in isolation for months or even years until the case is resolved. It creates a financial burden on law enforcement or the shelter in that area to agree to house those dogs," Rupp said at a committee hearing for the bill Tuesday. "A 30-day disposition hearing is already available in Missouri for virtually all other criminal cases, including those involving animal neglect or abuse."
Sen. Jane Cunningham, R-St. Louis County, had introduced separate legislation that mandated the same 30-day disposition requirement, but said she would roll her bill into Rupp's. She said the legislation would expedite dogs being able to get rehabilitation and would also allow for the humane deaths of badly injured dogs, some of which she said would have to wait months in excruciating pain.
"If the dogs are so physically hurt, this allows them to be put to sleep quickly and not have to wait months and months for a court hearing," she said.
Cunningham also said one of Vick's dogs, named Hector, who was adopted and rehabilitated by an animal trainer in Minnesota, was brought to the state Capitol earlier this year in an attempt to show legislators how efficient dispositions can increase the likelihood an injured dog can regain a sense of a normal life. Vick, who played six seasons as quarterback for the Atlanta Falcons, was convicted in 2007 of one federal count of conspiracy to operate an interstate dog-fighting ring.
Testimony was generally in support of the bills, with some framing the subject as a greater safety issue than for just dogs.
"It's a violent and systematic form of animal abuse and torture," said Debbie Hill, the vice president of operations for the Humane Society of Missouri. "There are usually other illegal activities associated with folks involved in dog fighting. It certainly affects our communities, in addition to what they are doing to the animals. I can assure you the individuals involved in dog fighting are truly terrifying."
There was no disagreement at the hearing with the effort to increase penalties for attending multiple dog fights. The lone opposition to the disposition provision came from Karen Strange, the president of the Missouri Federation of Animal Owners, who expressed worry that the bills would overstep a defendant's right to due process.
"We do not support dog fighting, but we do think the law is sufficient," she said, adding that participating in a dog fight is already a felony. "We are seeing cases in which dogs were confiscated and within the 30 days were euthanized, and the owner had no recourse."