Friday, February 24, 2017

Virginia Legislature Gives More Leeway and Consideration for Dogs Than for People Facing Public Registration and Stigmatization

I sent this to a few VA newspapers 2 days ago, I have not heard back so I’m going ahead and posting it today. 


Virginia dogs that bite people or another animal “deserve the benefit of the doubt” according to Delegate Matthew Fariss and the entire Virginia Legislature based on their unanimous votes for 2017’s HB2381 which is now headed to Governor McAuliffe’s desk.  

Delegate Fariss wants fewer dogs to be placed on the Virginia Dangerous Dog Registry with this Bill. 

Virginia has an online Dangerous Dogs Registry, something most people aren’t aware of. It was established in 2006.  

Dogs that are declared “dangerous” by Virginia Courts must be reported by the local animal control officers to the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and then they are posted online.

Unlike the Virginia State Police Sex Offender and Crimes Against Minors Registry, the Dangerous Dog Registry has only had 3 follow-up pieces of Legislation (4 counting Delegate Fariss’) since it was established. Whereas per the Virginia Criminal Sentencing Commission from 2005 to 2016 the average number of “Sex Offender” Bills proposed at each VA General Assembly is 41.9. 

HB2381  gives local Animal Control Officers the discretion to determine if they think a dog (or cat) should be considered dangerous or not based on “single nip or bite resulting only in a scratch, abrasion, or other minor injury”. 

Currently Animal Control Officers must summon the offending dog’s owner to appear in General District Court for them to explain why their animal should not be considered dangerous. If the court does rule the dog is a danger then the owner has 45 days to obtain a dangerous-dog certificate, Farris’ Bill will reduce that time-frame to 30 days. 

During the House Agriculture Committee debate on HB2381 a representative from the VA Animal Control Association told the Committee membersWe want to be able to give officers that discretion to look at the entire totality of each individual situation”. 

That sounds reasonable, right? 

Every situation, every case, every dog is different and a one-size-fits-all law that sweeps them all together to be publicly listed as “dangerous” will lead to low-risk and even no-risk dogs (and their owners) being wrongly stigmatized. A dangerous dog is going to cause fear and perhaps even hate within the community and we should be certain that’s not happening with dogs who pose no threat, right? 

So why is it that we deny such discretion for people in Virginia? 

In Virginia the majority of crimes against children and sex crimes have mandatory minimum sentences, which allows the Prosecutors to stack charges, to be selective with their plea deals and to usually avoid a trial with more than 94% of criminal cases being settled by a plea. In these cases Virginia judges have no discretion to consider the specific facts of the case or the history and character of the person charged, the minimum sentence is written into Virginia Code our judges are not permitted to give the-benefit-of-the-doubt in cases of a low or a no-risk offender. 

Virginia Code also states that no plea deal for a crime that requires registration as a Sex Offender can include avoiding the registration, it’s mandatory 

People who are charged with a crime against a child or a sex crime in Virginia have no options; there is no flexibility for them or for the judge, only for the Prosecutor. 

For 9 Virginia General Assembly sessions I have opposed myth-based and hate-driven legislation directed towards those who are already on the VSP Sex Offender Registry and for those who will one day be listed. I have been advocating for data-driven laws and to allow discretion in each case, classification and duration of registration and so far no reform has been taken seriously. 

But this year Virginia Legislators have unanimously agreed that dogs deserve the-benefit-of-the-doubt and that each individual situation for dogs should be considered before State registration is deemed appropriate. 

Yet people in Virginia can not and will not be given the same consideration or options that we are about to give to our animals.  

Somehow our priorities and the foundation of justice being served have been flipped in the Commonwealth with 2017’s HB2381.  

So before anyone cheers for the passage of HB2381 ask yourself why Virginia’s Legislators have intentionally made it impossible for people to get fair and balanced consideration when accused of a “heinous act” but they all believe latitude is needed for dogs.