Sunday, December 18, 2005

Virginia Lawmaker Proposing Tough New Dog Legislation... But, Will It Be Effective?

A Virginia lawmaker is proposing tough legislation to punish dog owners whose pets injure or kill, following a fatal attack on an elderly widow by three roaming pit bulls.

Dorothy Sullivan, 82, was attacked March 8 while walking her small dog, Buttons, in her own front yard in Partlow. Buttons also was killed.

In the absence of a specific law, the woman who prosecutors say owned the pit bulls, Deanna Large, faces trial Tuesday on a charge of involuntary manslaughter. It is the first time in Virginia a dog owner will be prosecuted on such a charge in a fatal mauling.

Large, 37, who lives down the road from Sullivan's house, could be sentenced to up to 13 years in prison if convicted of the felony and of three misdemeanor counts of allowing a dangerous dog to run at large.

Houck's bill would add a provision to state law to make fatal dog attacks a felony, punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $2,500.

It also would make certain dog attacks that result in serious injury felonies, instead of the current misdemeanors, punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a $2,500 fine. The penalties would be harsher for owners whose pets have previously been declared dangerous.

"There should be an option for the commonwealth to seek a stiffer penalty," said Kim Hamilton, executive director of the Virginia State Crime Commission.

The measure also would allow law enforcement officials to petition a court to declare a dog dangerous. Currently, only animal control officers have such authority. Owners of dogs declared dangerous would be required to maintain a $300,000 insurance policy, up from the $100,000 required now.

Even though I support dog bite legislation that is proportionate to the harm caused by a negligent owner’s dogs, I wonder if this new proposal will have any effect on the number of dog attacks in Virginia.

Already, the dog owner is facing 13 years in prison. The new law would make a fatal dog attack a felony, allow 10 years in prison, increase the penalty if this is a second offense, allow a court to declare a dog vicious, and increase the liability insurance required.

The way to stop attacks is to breed better dogs, then socialize, train, supervise, and contain them. Better breeding would require the elimination of dog fighting operations, puppy mills and back yard breeders. Better socialization would require more spending on public parks for dogs. Better training would mean mandatory training classes for all dogs, and extra training required for dogs that had been deemed potentially dangerous. Better supervision would mean leash laws, and laws requiring people interacting with dogs to take some care to ensure that they weren’t doing dumb things with dogs… since not all bites are the owner’s fault… sometimes the victim did it to themselves (in the above case, the victim was 100% innocent). And better containment would mean better fencing laws, allowing the construction of 6 foot fences wherever a dog lives regardless of the covenants of the neighborhood, and mandatory fencing for dogs deemed by a court to be potentially dangerous. Lastly, if the state is requiring increased insurance, then the insurance companies must be required to offer such insurance, for without that, then you are just enacting a ban on owning a dog.

Are you ready for that kind of legislation?

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