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Bill would penalize owners who misrepresent pets as service animals

  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald

    A dog whose owners admitted it is not a service dog stands in a shopping cart Tuesday in Target in Hilo.

  • LAURA RUMINSKI/West Hawaii Today

    Ernie Knapp and service dog Kona take a break at Life Care Center of Kona. A measure in the state Legislature cracking down on people who falsely present their pets as service animals passed its final vote Tuesday.

A bill that would penalize people who falsely present their pets as service animals passed its final reading Tuesday and now goes to Gov. David Ige for final consideration.

If Ige approves the measure, Senate Bill 2461 will impose fines on those who knowingly misrepresent a pet as a service animal in order to bring the animal to a place where it would otherwise be prohibited.

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According to the text of the bill, offenders can be fined between $100 and $250 for their first violation and between $100 and $500 for any subsequent violation.

Tina Yamaki, president of the Retail Merchants of Hawaii, said the bill hopefully will cut down on encounters with untrained animals in Hawaii retail locations.

“We’re seeing more and more people bringing animals into stores,” Yamaki said. “Sometimes they relieve themselves in the aisles.”

In addition to matters of hygiene, Yamaki said unruly animals often can present liability issues. Untrained animals can intimidate other customers and, if the animal bites a person, can open up a tortuous litigation process.

The question, however, is whether the bill can be sufficiently enforced. Francine Wai, president of the Disability and Communication Access Board, was skeptical.

“It’s one thing to turn people away,” Wai said. “It’s another thing to try to prosecute people.”

The problem, Wai said, is in the amount of evidence required to confirm a violation took place. Owners of genuine service animals do not obtain documentation confirming the nature of their pets, meaning proving false representation occurred at all is not straightforward.

More challenging, however, is the question of intent. The bill specifies an offender must have knowingly misrepresented an animal and requires “clear and convincing evidence” of that fact.

The word “knowingly” causes problems, Wai said. Some people who keep “emotional support” animals might genuinely think their animals are service animals.

“You can’t tell people who rely on comfort animals that their animals don’t provide a service,” Wai said.

On the other hand, people who are aware their animals are not service animals can simply lie if confronted, Wai said.

Wai said she thinks the bill will only be enforced for extremely flagrant offenses: if, for example, an offender encouraged other people to follow his or her example in order to bring animals into public places.

Currently, 19 other states have similar laws in place prohibiting service animal misrepresentation. So far, no prosecutions have been made under those laws, Wai said.

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Three Big Island senators — Russell Ruderman, D-Puna; Lorraine Inouye, D-Hilo; and Kai Kahele, D-Hilo — co-introduced the bill.

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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