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Dog Fighting Legal Overview

Hanna Gibson


Animal Legal and Historical Center
Publish Date:
2005
Place of Publication: Michigan State University College of Law
Printable Version

Dog Fighting Legal Overview

 

Dog fighting is an insidious underground organized crime that, although completely outlawed, has reached epidemic proportions in the United States. The blood-sport, involves the actual pitting of two dogs against each other in a pit or a ring to fight for the entertainment of the spectators. The dogs, usually pit bulls, literally bite and rip the flesh off of one another while the onlookers cheer, scream, and place bets on which dog will win the match. After the fight, both dogs are critically wounded, often with massive bleeding, ruptured lungs, broken bones, and other life threatening injuries. Generally, the loser of a match dies or is killed, unless he has any salvage value to his owner. When dogs are killed after a match, it is not done by humane euthanasia methods, rather the animals are shot, beaten, or tortured. The animals that survive generally never see a veterinarian, regardless of the gravity of injuries or the amount of suffering that the animals will have to endure. From an animal welfare standpoint, dog-fighting is one of the most serious forms of animal abuse, not only for the heinous acts of violence that the dogs endure during and after the fights, but because they literally suffer their entire lives.

Dogs that are born, bought or stolen for fighting are often neglected and abused from the start. Most spend their entire lives alone on chains or in cages and only know the attention of a human when they are being trained to fight and they only know the company of other animals in the context of being trained to kill them. Most dogs spend their entire lives without adequate food, water, or shelter. Many of the training methods involve torturing and killing of other innocent animals. Often pets are stolen or otherwise obtained to be used as live bait in training exercises to improve the dogs’ endurance, strength, or fighting ability. If the bait animals are still alive after the training sessions, they are usually given to the dogs as a reward, and the dogs finish killing them. 

The barbaric nature of the crime is accurately reflected in the special status of the dog-fighting laws. In all fifty states, dog-fighting laws exist independently of the general anti-cruelty statutes; most are felonies and carry much stiffer penalties than the general anti-cruelty laws. Generally, it is not only illegal to actually coordinate or promote a dog fight, but it is also illegal to keep, possess or train a dog for fighting. Additionally, in most states it is illegal to attend a dog fight as a spectator. The statutes all include a knowledge, or mens rea, requirement, such that an individual must intentionally engage in wrongful conduct, and cannot be held criminally liable for accidentally witnessing or unintentionally encountering a dogfighting exhibition. For more information, see Legal Status of Dog-Fighting.

Although all states have dog-fighting laws in addition to the general anti-cruelty statutes, dog-fighting involves acts that both violate the specific dog-fighting laws as well as the more general anti-cruelty statutes. It is important for prosecutors to understand when it is appropriate to charge a suspect under either the more general or the more specific laws, or both. Certain jurisdictions are very specific about requiring that the defendants be charged under the dog-fighting statute as opposed to the anti-cruelty statute, others encourage charges arising under both statutes when appropriate and in some cases, there may be insufficient evidence to bring charges under one statute, but sufficient evidence for a charge under the other statute. Either way, a thorough understanding of legal implications of both types of statutes is essential. See, Legal Status of Dog-Fighting.   

Historically, the crime of dog-fighting was considered an isolated animal welfare issue, and as such was generally ignored, denied, or disregarded by law enforcement. Often, law enforcement officials patently refused to investigate complaints of dog-fighting activity, claiming that because of its status as a crime against animals, animal control agencies, animal services, or humane organizations had the responsibility to address the problem. Within the last decade, however, a growing body of legal and empirical evidence has emerged exposing the clandestine culture of dog-fighting and its nexus with other crimes and community violence. Dog fighters are violent criminals that engage in a whole host of peripheral criminal activities. Many are heavily involved in organized crime, racketeering, drug distribution, or gangs, and they arrange and attend the fights as a forum for gambling and drug trafficking. For more information, see Criminal Profile of the Urban Dog-Fighter Chart. See also, The Culture of Dogfighting.

Animal services, animal control agencies, and humane organizations are neither trained nor equipped to confront criminals of this caliber and they rightfully maintain that dog-fighting is a crime that must be addressed by law enforcement. The end result of denial of responsibility by both law enforcement agencies and animal control agencies has been the unfettered growth of dog fighting and its peripheral crimes and the emergence of a literal epidemic of the blood sport. Many communities have been morally, socially and culturally scarred by the menacing pestilence of dogfighting for generations. From a very early age, children in those communities are routinely exposed to the unfathomable violence that is inherent within the blood sport. Even seasoned law enforcement agents are consistently appalled by the atrocities that they encounter before, during, and after dog fights, yet the children that grow up exposed to it are conditioned to believe that the violence is normal. Those children are systematically desensitized to the suffering, and ultimately become criminalized. See, The Victims of Dogfighting.

In recent years social, political, and legal forces have effectuated remarkable changes in their perception of and reaction to the blood sport. Social scientists, policy makers, and members of the law enforcement and legal communities now agree on the urgency of eradicating dog-fighting, and are equipped with stringent laws to do so. Prosecutions for the crime of dog-fighting were almost unheard of a few decades ago, and efforts to eradicate dog-fighting have been slowed by lack of training within law enforcement agencies and by prosecutors and judges with no experience or understanding of dog-fighting cases. The recent proliferation of dog-fighting raids and convictions has resulted in a growing body of empirical and legal data about identifying signs of dog-fighting, and investigating and prosecuting the crime.

Law enforcement agents, particularly those from the departments that offer no formal training on investigating this type of crime, can rely on the growing body of data to access information on how to identify the presence of dog-fighting, and how to gather sufficient evidence for a prosecution. Dog-fighting presents a unique dilemma in the area of warrants. It is important for agents to understand when a warrant is required to conduct a lawful search and when the circumstances justify a warrantless search. Once it is determined that a search warrant is required, it is imperative that the investigating officer supply detailed information on the locations to be searched and the items to be seized. Evidence of dog-fighting, including the dogs, training implements, other paraphernalia, medical supplies, cages for transport, the pit, and remains of dead animals, is often scattered throughout many separate buildings, vehicles and open fields. When searching multiple buildings, there must be probable cause for each building to be searched and the warrant must describe each building. The warrant must also specifically describe the items to be seized during the search.

There is a growing body of case law to aid prosecutors in developing their cases and in anticipating an outcome. Dog fighting prosecutions have been historically difficult because the relative lack of case law has provided no predictability or guide about what types of evidence are sufficient for a conviction. The emerging body of case law provides a guide of what types of evidence are generally sufficient to support a conviction of dog-fighting. Where there is insufficient evidence to support a conviction of dog-fighting, prosecutors have other options, such as bringing charges under the general anti-cruelty statutes or filing charges based upon evidence of other peripheral crimes. Many otherwise promising cases have been thwarted by the perplexing prosecutorial issues of establishing intent to participate in dog fighting and of proving ownership of the dogs. As recent case law has illustrated, such issues, once addressed need not bar otherwise successful prosecutions.   

The recent rise in prosecutions and convictions for dog fighting has resulted in a predictable influx of appeals. Appellants often challenge the constitutionality of the dog fighting statute under which they were convicted. Generally, appellants argue that the statutes are unconstitutionally vague, or overbroad. Utilizing the Void for Vagueness Doctrine, the appellants argue that a person of ordinary intelligence could not determine what behaviors the statute proscribes. The Overbreadth Doctrine is implicated where the appellants argue that the statute criminalizes innocent or constitutionally protected actions.  Such arguments are routinely rejected by the appellate courts.

From an institutional perspective, the growing efforts to eradicate the culture of dog fighting are significant. Many communities are aggressively targeting dog fighting by coordinating local and regional dog fighting task forces, implementing public service campaigns and promoting community outreach and education. The task forces are cooperative policing efforts that utilize various government and non-government agencies and community based organizations. Many police departments are developing specially trained units to lead the task forces. Generally, public service campaigns are implemented to educate the community about the gravity and scope of dog fighting as well as to disseminate contact information for reporting the crimes and to encourage community participation in the eradication of dog fighting.

Despite the stringent anti-fighting laws, the growing awareness of law enforcement about the scope and gravity of the blood sport and the ever increasing body of empirical and legal evidence on the subject, the epidemic rages on. Society is merely beginning to confront the violent culture of dog fighting. Notwithstanding weekly reports of dog fighting raids and prosecutions from around the country, countless dog fights continue to occur every night and go unnoticed, unreported, uninvestigated or unprosecuted. It will take years, perhaps decades for the current efforts to eradicate dog-fighting to have any tangible impact. As with all violent crimes and social diseases, hundreds of years of unfettered growth simply cannot be reversed overnight, though as current trends continue, progress is inevitable.

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For an in-depth legal discussion, see the Detailed Discussion.

 

 

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