As of August 1, there will be a new criminal felony charge on the books in Alabama – one that could result a prison sentence of up to 10 years.
Our Birmingham criminal defense lawyers understand that the passage of Alabama House Bill 259, which repeals Alabama Code Section 13A-11-15, pertaining to the killing of a dog used by a police officer.
The way the law currently reads, a person can be convicted of a Class C felony if he or she knowingly, intentionally, recklessly or with criminal negligence kills a police dog that is being used to perform tasks that are within the scope of the officer’s duties. A Class C felony is punishable by between 1 to 10 years in prison.
The Republican sponsor of the bill felt this law was too limited and sought to expand it.
What House Bill 259 does is take a harder line on the issue.
First, it extends protections not only to police dogs, but also rescue dogs and their handlers – regardless of whether those handlers are police officers.
The second thing the law does is widen the potential actions that may be deemed criminal. It’s still a Class C felony to kill a police dog. It’s now also a Class C felony to seriously injure a police or search and rescue dog. The same punishment would be meted out for stealing a police dog, though we are not familiar with any instances where this occurred.
Causing an injury to a police or search and rescue dog that results in the animal being out-of-service for 30 days or less will result in a misdemeanor charge.
It will also be considered a misdemeanor for anyone to interfere or harass a dog when it is working in its capacity to assist law enforcement or search and rescue teams. An example of harassment or interference would be taking efforts to distract the dog by throwing an object, tossing out food, shining a flashlight or shouting.
Most of these efforts are ineffective anyway, as police dogs are trained to be highly focused. In fact, police dogs can cost as much as $50,000, sometimes more, to train. Their uses are varied, depending on the specific needs of the agency. Most are used to detect drugs. Others are used to track and capture suspects. Still others are trained to locate certain discarded items, such as firearms or other items that may have been tossed by a suspect in the course of fleeing a crime scene.
If a police dog needs to be taken out of service due to an injury caused by a person who intended to harm the animal, the law provides an avenue for police agencies to seek financial restitution.
Our concern is that law enforcement agencies will end up applying this law too broadly. For example, if a suspect is attempting to flee and is chased by a police dog, it is instinctive self-defense to fight off the animal. The suspect may not intend the animal harm, but it is a form of self-preservation to react to a physical threat. Should someone spend another 10 years in prison for responding naturally to a physical attack?
The new law, signed recently by the governor, will appear under Section 111.05 of the Constitution of Alabama.