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February 9 2006 - BILLS BITE BACK

Three recent deadly attacks in Virginia have thrust the issue of dog attacks into the legislative spotlight. Last March, Dorothy Sullivan, 82, and her dog, Buttons, were mauled to death by three roaming pit bulls in Spotsylvania County. In April, a 4-year-old boy was fatally attacked by his family's Rottweiler-German shepherd mix in Orange County, and in October, a 2-year-old Suffolk boy was killed by his family's pit bull mixes -- marking the 10th fatal dog attack in Virginia since 1965.

State lawmakers have introduced several bills that would create a framework of criminal penalties to prosecute dog attack cases and introduce jail time for dog owners who allow their pets to injure or kill.

In late January, state senators unanimously approved a bill sponsored by Sen. Edd Houck, D-Spotsylvania County, and Sen. Frederick Quayle, R-Chesapeake, that would make dog attack that maims or kills a person a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $2,500. The bill also would tighten regulations for owners whose dogs have been declared dangerous, such as requiring them to carry more liability insurance and list their dogs on an Internet registry.

"Current Virginia law as it relates to dangerous and vicious dogs deals with the animal," said Houck, whose bill has been backed by Sullivan's family. "This bill changes the focus from the animal to the owner."

Two more bills propose making brutal or fatal dog of a person a Class 6 felony. One, sponsored by Del. Ken Melvin, D-Portsmouth, is moving through the House; the other, introduced by Houck and Quayle, was passed by the Senate.

A fourth bill, sponsored by Del. Bobby Orrock, R-Spotsylvania County, also would stiffen regulations for owners of dangerous dogs. It was passed by the House on Wednesday.

Under current state law, prosecutors have two options in vicious dog attacks: charging the owner with either a misdemeanor leash law violation, punishable by a fine and an optional sentence of 12 months in jail, or involuntary manslaughter. All dogs declared vicious by state law must be euthanized.

However, if it is the dog's first offense and the injuries are less severe, an animal control officer may declare the dog dangerous, requiring the owner to keep it restrained and comply with local regulations for dangerous dogs.
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