Arizona Capitol

'Fake' Service Dogs? AZ Republicans Want $250 Fine; Disability Advocates Opposed

A service dog naps during Wednesday's Senate Government Committee hearing.
A service dog naps during Wednesday's Senate Government Committee hearing. Antonia Farzan
A handful of Republican legislators have decided that they know better than the disability community.

That's the obvious takeaway from the Senate Government committee's decision to advance Senate Bill 1040, which would levy a $250 fine on people who falsely claim that their pet is a service animal.

A number of advocacy groups oppose the bill, including the Arizona Center for Disability Law, Ability360, National Federation of the Blind of Arizona, and the Arizona Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. On Wednesday, the committee chamber was packed with people who had shown up to protest, including several people who brought their own service dogs.

"We're concerned that this bill will put businesses and the police in the position of judging whether the person has a disability or the service animal is legitimate," explained April Reed, the vice president of advocacy for Ability360.

Many disabled people have "invisible" disabilities, such as epilepsy or PTSD, she pointed out. In order to prove that their service animal is legitimate, those individuals potentially would have to disclose private information about their medical conditions.

The Americans With Disabilities Act already allows stores and other businesses to kick out service animals that are being aggressive or disruptive, making the bill unnecessary, she added.

The bill's author, State Senator John Kavanagh, argued on Wednesday that it is intended to deter people from spending $25 on Amazon to purchase a fake "service dog" vest. 

"I watched a woman being dragged around by her fraudulent service dog in Walmart the other day," he said. "It’s becoming epidemic."

That rationale doesn't make sense to Sarah Kader, an attorney at the Arizona Center for Disability Law.

"Good people aren’t going to do this anyway, and bad people who are buying fake service vests aren’t going to obey the signs," she said. "What is going to happen is that people with legitimate service dogs get harassed."

The bill states that a court would impose the $250 fine, she pointed out. But having to go to court and prove that a service dog is legitimate could be difficult or impossible for people with disabilities who have limited access to transportation. If they end up missing a court hearing, they could have a warrant issued for their arrest.

Kavanagh, a Republican from Fountain Hills, is also trying to make it illegal to drive around with a reptile on your lap. He claimed that police wouldn't actually enforce the service-dog law.

"I will be the first to admit that there will be next to no cases of people being given summons for this," he said.
"The only way you’re going to be found guilty of this, quite frankly, is if you’re dumb enough to admit to a cop that it's not a real service animal."

Based on Wednesday's hearing, it seemed pretty clear that most disability advocates aren't particularly concerned that are other people are falsely passing off their pets as service dogs — or, at least, not concerned enough to feel that an outright ban is necessary.

The Republicans on the committee didn't seem to care, though.

"To me, it’s very disrespectful when someone is impersonating someone with a disability," State Senator Sonny Borrelli said, drawing a comparison to people who falsely claim to have served in the military.

The bill passed 4-3, split along party lines. In addition to Borrelli and Kavanagh, Republicans David Farnsworth and Gail Griffin voted in favor of advancing it. Democrats Robert Meza, Juan Mendez, and Lupe Contreras were opposed. Two other committee have yet to hold hearings on the legislation.
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Antonia Noori Farzan is a staff writer at New Times and an honors graduate of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. Before moving to Arizona, she worked for the New Times Broward-Palm Beach.