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House passes bill to criminalize fibbing about service animals

Rep. Steve Green presents a bill that would criminalize misrepresenting an animal as a service animal on the House Floor Monday. Photo by Andrew VonBank

Skills performed by a service dog can be a matter of life and death for someone. A plan to penalize those who fake an animal’s purpose received overwhelming House support Monday.

Sponsored by Rep. Steve Green (R-Fosston), HF3157 would make it a crime to knowingly misrepresent an animal as a service animal in a public place to obtain rights or privileges available to someone who qualifies for a service animal. A first-time violation would be a petty misdemeanor; subsequent offenses would be misdemeanors.

Passed 125-0 by the House, the bill was sent to the Senate where Sen. Justin Eichorn (R-Grand Rapids) is the sponsor.

“This will provide protection for businesses and those who have a true need,” Green said.

The bill would use a federal definition to define a service animal: “any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability. Other species of animals, whether wild or domestic, trained or untrained, are not service animals. … The work or tasks performed by a service animal must be directly related to the individual's disability. … The provision of emotional support, well-being, comfort, or companionship do not constitute work or tasks for the purposes of this definition.”

By law, two questions can be asked of someone with an invisible disability claiming their animal is a service animal: “Is this animal required because of a disability?” and “What work or task has that animal been trained to perform?” The questions cannot be asked if the need is obvious, such as a dog guiding a person who is blind. Nor is it permissible to ask about the nature or extent of an individual’s disability, require documentation or require the animal wear an identifying vest.

Bill supporters note vests can easily be obtained online and there have been instances where someone passes an animal off as a properly trained service animal only to have it do something a trained animal would not, including being aggressive with other dogs or biting someone.

“There doesn’t seem to be a moral compass for people anymore,” Beth Kantor, who has multiple sclerosis, told the House Public Safety and Security Policy and Finance Committee earlier this month. “They want to bring their dog with because it’s fun. I have to bring my dog with because I’m disabled.”

Supporters said business owners and staff don’t know they can ask someone with a fake service animal to leave or won’t for fear of being sued.

The bill would allow a business to post a sign near an entrance stating service animals are welcome, but it is crime to misrepresent such an animal. The Council on Disability, under the bill, “may prepare and make available to businesses a brochure detailing permissible questions a business owner may ask to determine whether an animal is a service animal, proper answers to those questions, and guidelines defining unacceptable behavior.”

 


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