06 July 2016

Service Dog Fraud

Sadly, one of the statutes just put in place by our legislature is one putting a $250 fine on fake use of a dog under claim that it is a service dog. You'd think this wouldn't be much of a problem, but I know that I have spoken with more than one inn keeper about people claiming that all sorts of dogs are service animals in order to keep Spot with them in their hotel room. So, I thought I'd try to put down what the state of Virginia law is in this matter.

To begin with, let's look at the new statute: 
§ 51.5-44.1. Fraudulent representation of a service dog or hearing dog; penalty
 Any person who knowingly and willfully fits a dog with a harness, collar, vest, or sign, or uses an identification card commonly used by a person with a disability, in order to represent that the dog is a service dog or hearing dog to fraudulently gain public access for such dog pursuant to provisions in § 51.5-44 is guilty of a Class 4 misdemeanor [up to $250 fine].
I can't find anything under Virginia law specifically set up to give a handicapped individual a specific ID card. Maybe the DMV issues cards listing specific disabilities as part of providing ID cards. Consequently, I think the manner in which service dogs are identified is by the equipment they are wearing. In fact, that seems to be the exact method of identification called for in § 51.5-44(E):
 E. Every totally or partially blind person shall have the right to be accompanied by a dog in harness trained as a guide dog, every deaf or hearing-impaired person shall have the right to be accompanied by a dog trained as a hearing dog on a blaze orange leash, and every mobility-impaired or otherwise disabled person shall have the right to be accompanied by a dog, trained as a service dog, in a harness, backpack, or vest identifying the dog as a trained service dog, in any of the places listed in subsection B without being required to pay an extra charge for the dog, provided that he shall be liable for any damage done to the premises or facilities by such dog.
 Notice that there are only three types of service dogs allowed and each has to be wearing some sort of identifying device. This is the only real identifier that an inn keeper could use to differentiate Spot the pet from Spot the service dog. To be fair, one would expect that in the vast majority of cases it will be clear if someone has vision, auditory, or mobility problems.  However, the "otherwise disabled" leaves a lot of wiggle room. And if anybody wanted to cheat in that area it is ridiculously easy to buy the gear which proclaims a dog is a service animal.

The only real limit here is that "[t]he provision of emotional support, well-being, comfort, or companionship shall not constitute work or tasks for the purposes of this definition."  Va. Code § 51.5-40.1.

In the end, I have to conclude that hotels and motels should be within their rights under Virginia law to refuse service to people without the obvious handicap who don't have the dog properly outfitted. Beyond that, if anyone is caught faking they could end up coming to court to get fined. If the innkeeper is suspicious he should call local law enforcement to investigate.

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