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Illinois becomes first state in the nation to ban felons from owning or possessing unaltered dogs that could be used as weapons          Send a link to a friend

Gov. Blagojevich signs legislation toughening penalties against owners of vicious dogs that endanger the public

[JUNE 2, 2006]  SPRINGFIELD -- Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich signed new laws Wednesday toughening the penalties for owners of vicious and dangerous dogs if their pets attack someone. The laws also have the nation's first restrictions banning convicted drug dealers and violent offenders from using dogs as weapons, and include increased penalties for dog fighting.

"Dogs can make great companions, but if they're not trained well or restrained, some dogs can also pose serious threats -- especially to children," Blagojevich said. "We've seen too many people seriously injured by dogs whose owners allow them to act more like wild predators than pets. I'm pleased to sign these new laws making it clear that dog owners will be held responsible for their pets' actions -- especially if the animal has been declared vicious or dangerous -- and the consequences will be severe if an owner ignores their responsibility and someone gets hurt."

House Bill 4238, sponsored by state Rep. Mike Boland, D-East Moline, and state Sen. Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, increases the criminal penalty to a Class 3 felony punishable by up to five years in prison if the owner of a vicious dog fails to keep the dog in an enclosure or fails to spay or neuter the animal and it gets loose and kills or seriously injures someone. If the owner knowingly allowed the dog to run loose or failed to take steps to keep the animal in an enclosure, the offense is a Class 2 felony, carrying a potential prison term of three to seven years.

The bill also makes it a Class 4 felony, carrying a sentence of one to three years, if the owner of a dangerous dog has not complied with orders regarding the dog and the dog inflicts serious physical injury on a person or other animal. If the owner of a dangerous dog fails to comply with any order regarding the dog and the dog kills a person, the owner will now be guilty of a Class 3 felony, punishable by two to five years in jail.

A "dangerous dog," determined by the Illinois Department of Agriculture or local animal control, is a dog that poses a serious threat or has, without justification, bitten a person, but does not cause serious physical injury. A "vicious dog," determined by circuit courts, is a dog that, without justification, attacks a person and causes serious physical injury or death or has been found to be a "dangerous dog" on three separate occasions.

Dangerous and vicious dog attacks in Illinois have led to serious injuries and even death. In November, six children were reportedly attacked in the village of Cary by three pit bulls, and in 2005, a 14-year-old died after being mauled by four dogs near her home in the northwest town of Erie.

"This bill started nearly a year ago, with the death of a 14-year-old girl named Lydia Chaplin, who lived in a rural area near my district," said Boland, who sponsored the legislation in the House. "This is a proposal to take a 'bite' out of the root causes for violent dog attacks by holding dog owners responsible should their dog attack. I believe this legislation provides a solution that promises a better future for both the public and for pets."

"Dangerous dogs are a threat to public safety," said Harmon, who sponsored the legislation in the Senate. "With this new law, we send the message that owners of dangerous dogs will face real consequences if their dogs threaten our children and families."

"The tough new penalties in this law should provide added incentive for dog owners to do the right thing and have their pets spayed or neutered," said Dr. Colleen O'Keefe, division manager of Food Safety and Animal Protection for the Illinois Department of Agriculture. "Dogs that have been 'fixed' generally are more docile and less likely to attack. Plus, sterilization helps to control the pet population, reducing the number of potential strays."

House Bill 4238 also:

  • Clarifies that pet owners may be held liable for damages in civil court if their pet, without provocation, attempts to attack, attacks or injures someone.

  • Removes a $50 cap on the fine that counties may levy on the owners of dogs that are caught running at large in unincorporated areas. Counties themselves now may decide the appropriate amount of those fines.

  • Allows judges to impose an extended prison term if a defendant, while committing a felony offense, directed an animal to assault a policeman or used an animal to further the criminal activities of an organized gang.

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Blagojevich signed into law two other pieces of public safety legislation, including the pioneering restrictions on dog ownership by felons.

House Bill 2946, sponsored by state Rep. Jerry Mitchell, R-Sterling, and state Sen. William Haine, D-Alton, prohibits felons convicted of forcible felonies, felonies under the Humane Care for Animals Act, Class 3 felonies under the Illinois Controlled Substances and Cannabis Act, Class 3 felonies under the Methamphetamine Control and Community Protection Act, and felonies under the Deadly Weapons Statute from owning a dog that has not been spayed or neutered. The bill also prohibits these felons from owning any dog that has been declared vicious or dangerous. Additionally, dogs owned by a felon must have a microchip inserted under their skin for identification. These prohibitions take effect upon the felon's release from custody and last for a period of 10 years. Violations of this law are Class A misdemeanors.

"We in the legislature became aware of the problem of drug manufacturers keeping dangerous dogs in order to have those dogs attack law enforcement officers as they perform their duties," said Haine. "This bill will give law enforcement and prosecutors another tool to fight these criminals who hold no regard for others."

"This legislation makes sure that felons will no longer be able to turn man's best friend into a nightmare for law-abiding citizens," said Mitchell. "I am very proud to be a part of its implementation, and I think it will make a difference to all of us."

"HB 2946 prevents convicted felons, who already cannot possess firearms, from using intact or unsterilized dogs as weapons to terrorize their community," said Ledy VanKavage, director of legal training, legislation and outreach for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. "Unsterilized dogs were responsible for 89 percent of the fatal dog attacks last year. Studies have shown that intact canines also are responsible for the majority of bites nationwide. The ASPCA commends Governor Blagojevich and the Illinois General Assembly for their proactive approach to addressing this important public safety issue."

House Bill 4711, sponsored by state Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia, D-Aurora, and state Sen. Iris Martinez, D-Chicago, increases various penalties for dog fighting. Attending a dog fight is now a Class A misdemeanor for a first offense, carrying a sentence of up to one year in jail, and a Class 4 felony for any subsequent offenses, carrying a sentence of one to three years in prison. Bringing a child younger than 13 years old to a dog fight is now a Class 4 felony for the first violation, and it is a Class 3 felony thereafter, punishable by a sentence of two to five years in jail. The bill also permits criminal courts to infer that a dog fighting violation has occurred if a defendant possesses a dog and dog fighting equipment, and it requires any evidence seized in dog fighting cases to be kept and provided to police agencies for training purposes.

"We've heard a lot about vicious dog attacks in the news recently, but we haven't heard about one of the underlying causes of dog attacks -- dog fighting," said Chapa LaVia. "Frequently, dogs are trained to be vicious by owners who wish to use their animals in dog fights, and what's worse is that a lot of dog fights have connections to street gangs. I introduced this legislation to crack down on this cruel blood sport and to help eliminate an illegal revenue stream fueling violence in our community. I applaud Governor Blagojevich for recognizing this severity of this problem by signing House Bill 4711 into law."

"Strengthening law enforcement's ability to intercede in dog fighting rings will make our streets more secure," said Martinez. "Increasing the penalties for exposing children to such extreme violence will help ensure that children are shielded from such horror and not encouraged to watch it. I'm confident that our communities will be safer places to live and raise families when our concerns about dog fighting violence are alleviated."

House Bill 4238 becomes law immediately. The other two bills take effect Jan. 1, 2007.

[News release from the governor's office]

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