UPDATE: Georgia House votes to increase dog-fighting penalties

The Georgia House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly today to increase criminal penalties for dog fighting, which if passed into law would for the first time make it a crime in Georgia simply to attend a dog fight.

The House voted 165-6 in favor of House Bill 301, which tightens the current state law against dog fighting. Advocates said the current law lacks sufficient penalties, and makes it easy for dog owners to melt into the crowd during a law enforcement raid, avoiding prosecution.

“Because there was no penalty, it made it basically legal to attend a dog fight,” said Rep. Bobby Reese, R-Sugar Hill, who sponsored the bill.

The bill would make spectators guilty of a misdemeanor of a high and aggravated nature, allowing for up to a year in jail and a maximum $5,000 fine. Dog owners, those who run dog fighting rings, or those who bet on the events would be subject to felony charges, with maximum penalties for a second offense of up to 10 years in prison and a $15,000 fine.

One of the few to vote against the bill was Rep. David Lucas, D-Macon, who said he thought the bill carried excessive penalties for a practice that is deeply rooted in some African-American communities. “We’ve got over 60,000 people in the corrections system now,” Lucas said. “I think we take things too far sometimes.”

The main debate on the House floor centered on an whether to include an exception to the law for guard dog trainers. The bill would only ban dogs fighting other dogs, Reese said,

“This is only about dog-on-dog,” Reese said. “For training guard dogs, they typically use a volunteer in a big fluffy suit, from what I see on TV.”

The Senate passed a similar bill last year that carries felony charges for spectators. The House bill was negotiated with Gov. Sonny Perdue in order to ensure his immediate signature upon passage by both houses, Reese said.

The issue gained much more attention last April when former Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick was indicted on federal dog-fighting charges. Vick was later convicted and imprisoned. Singer Willie Nelson recorded a commercial late last year pushing for the Senate bill.

Some lawmakers were concerned about language in Senate Bill 16 about “enticing” dogs to fight, which was removed from the House version. The language of the two bills is very different, despite similar effects.

Reese said the House trimmed its version in order to simplify the bill and ensure its passage. “When I first sunk my teeth into it, this was a much longer bill,” he said.