- The Washington Times - Friday, February 8, 2008

ANNAPOLIS (AP) — Maryland lawmakers yesterday considered tougher penalties for spectators of dogfights, including whether attending such a fight should be a felony.

A House committee is considering the penalties, ranging from a misdemeanor punishable by 90 days in jail to a felony punishable by up to three years. The bill also includes tougher penalties for attending cockfights.

Bill sponsor Delegate James E. Malone Jr., Baltimore County Democrat, said the measure was inspired by the case of NFL star Michael Vick, now serving a federal sentence for running dogfights out of a Virginia home.

“If you take the spectators out of the sport, hopefully you hurt the sport,” said Mr. Malone, whose bill is endorsed by the Humane Society of the United States.

Other states are considering similar measures. However, several lawmakers on the House panel questioned whether the felony designation would reduce the numbers of people attending animal fights.

“Sometimes we’re being asked to enhance a penalty almost as a substitute for enforcing the law,” said Delegate Luiz R.S. Simmons, Montgomery Democrat.

Supporters say few people are charged with a misdemeanor so tougher penalties would inspire police to do more work in the dogfighting area.

“Police are a little leery of doing a six-month investigation if they can only get misdemeanors,” Mr. Malone said.

House members did not vote on the measure. Some committee members indicated they were skeptical that the felony change would make inroads into the problem. The state Office of Public Defender did not attend the hearing but sent a letter of opposition, calling current penalties sufficient.

“Is the problem the current penalty or is it really a lack of enforcement?” Mr. Simmons asked.

Humane Society officials testified that the felony designation would send a powerful signal that animal fighting is a serious matter.

Andi Berant, director of state legislation for the Humane Society, said Maryland has tougher penalties for less-serious crimes such as playing a game of craps, stealing cable television or racing a horse under a false name. She said many states are revisiting outdated dogfighting laws in light of the Vick case.

“We have about 25 states looking at animal fighting laws this year,” Mrs. Berant said.

Baltimore officials have backed the felony dogfighting proposal and sent an official to push for it. City Health Commissioner Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein told lawmakers that Baltimore started a dogfighting task force six months ago and has opened more than a dozen investigations.

Dr. Sharfstein said tougher penalties for attending dogfights would enable more prosecutions of dogfights and the separate criminal behavior associated with it, such as gambling and illegal drugs. That is because animal fighting prosecutions require a lot of detective work.

“It’s hard to prove dogfighting because usually you’re not busting into a fight,” Dr. Sharfstein said. He said the felony designation would “make that investment and coordinated effort more worthwhile.”

Lawmakers also considered a bill to make it a crime to put pets in the backs of open-air pickup trucks without being crated or otherwise secured.

“It absolutely scalds me when I’m driving along and I see a dog in the back of a pickup truck going down the road,” said the bill’s sponsor, Delegate Kevin Kelly, Allegany Democrat. The bill, already law in more than 20 states, also was supported by the Humane Society.

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