Florida Lawmakers Want To Punish People Who Use Fake Service Dogs

While there are many Americans with legitimate needs for service animals, and who are legally allowed to take those animals into restaurants and stores where they would normally be banned, there are some people who exploit the service animal label without any bona fide medical or therapeutic need. Now some Florida legislators are looking to penalize these fakers with fines and possible jail time.

Florida HB 71 [PDF], introduced earlier this month, would amend the existing state law, which currently defines an individual with a disability as someone who is “deaf, hard of hearing, blind, visually impaired, or otherwise physically disabled.”

The proposed bill opens up this definition to be more in line with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act define a disabled individual as one with “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.” And “major life activities” would include “caring for one’s self, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, and working.”

It also expands on the definition of service animal to include work like “alerting an individual to the presence of allergens, providing physical support and assistance with balance and stability to an individual with a mobility disability, helping an individual with a psychiatric or neurological disability by preventing or interrupting impulsive or destructive behaviors, reminding an individual with mental illness to take prescribed medications, calming an individual with post-traumatic stress disorder during an anxiety attack, or doing other specific work.”

At the same time, the bill contains new restrictions that aren’t in the current statute, like the requirement for the animal to be leashed, harnessed or otherwise controlled by the handler.

And then there is the penalty for pretending that your furry friend is a service animal.

“A person who knowingly and willfully misrepresents herself or himself, through conduct or verbal or written notice, as using a service animal and being qualified to use a service animal or as a trainer of a service animal commits a misdemeanor of the second degree,” and could be punished with fines, community service, or even jail time.

WPBF-TV in West Palm Beach spoke to a local woman with cerebral palsy who uses a service animal and applauds the move to outlaw fakers.

“It is a prevalent problem,” she explains. “It makes it that much harder for us to travel or go into businesses with our legitimate service dogs when we’re constantly questioned.”

One roadblock to actually enforcing the law is actually contained within its text — and can’t really be changed as it’s in keeping with the rules set out in the ADA.

“Documentation that the service animal is trained is not a precondition for providing service to an individual accompanied by a service animal,” reads the bill. “A public accommodation may not ask about the nature or extent of an individual’s disability.”

An accommodation can ask if the animal is required because of a disability and what tasks that animal is trained to perform.

So if you’re a restaurant manager and a customer comes in with what he claims is a service animal but which you think is just a pet, you can’t simply ask him to leave or remove the dog (unless it is misbehaving or out of control).

And if the customer says the dog is trained to assist him with an unseen medical need — for example, detecting potential allergens — you can’t ask him to demonstrate the dog’s training or show some sort of documentation.

Thus, it may be difficult for operators of places like restaurants and stores to call out fakers who do a good job of pretending. Landlord and hotel/time-share operators would presumably have more time to determine if a person is faking to use a service animal. In any case, the police would ultimately need to be involved before any charges are filed, and some people won’t be willing to go that far to bust someone for pretending that their puppy provides a legitimate service.

[via Eater]