PHOENIX — Passing off a pet as a service animal could become illegal under a proposal currently making its way through the Arizona state legislature.
The plan passed the state Senate on Thursday on a party-line vote and still needs approval from the House of Representatives. It would create a fine of up to $250 for misrepresenting a pet as a service animal.
In the run-up to passage, lawmakers debated whether the proposal will help crack down on people who are improperly bringing pets out in public. It is not clear whether this is a widespread problem.
Sen. Steve Farley, D-Tucson, said the bill could lead to people with legitimate service animals being unfairly treated or interrogated.
“This bill does nothing except for put a thumb in the nose of those who are disabled,” he said.
Bill sponsor Sen. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, said the measure is necessary to prevent people from taking “phony” service animals out in public where they don’t belong. He raised concerns about people dressing up their pet in a fake service animal vest and taking them out in public — and he pushed back against the notion that current law already allows store owners to kick out animals.
“I don’t want some dog being wheeled around a supermarket in the same cart that I’ll put my food in later to be able to stay just because he’s not misbehaving, and that’s what the current law is,” he said.
Another supporter, Sen. Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu City, said the proposal amounts to a “stolen valor” initiative — the same term used for laws that punish people for faking military service.
“It legitimizes the real service animal, and it protects the rights of the folks with a disability or a physical challenge,” he said.
Several organizations who work with the disability community appeared at committee meetings and provided testimony on the proposal during the legislative process. But Sen. Katie Hobbs, D-Phoenix, said she was concerned that such stakeholders weren’t consulted.
“This directly affects them, and that is offensive,” she said.
April Reed, the vice president of advocacy at nonprofit Abilities360, said that business owners already have the right to exclude pets, and can ask disruptive service animals to leave — although usually, they’re well-trained enough that “people don’t even notice they’re there.”
She said a civil penalty for misrepresenting service animals could lead to businesses pressuring people with legitimate service animals to explain their conditions.
“So many people with disabilities have hidden or invisible disabilities,” like post-traumatic stress disorder or epilepsy, she said. “We are definitely concerned that people with legitimate service animals could be placed in a position where they have to defend themselves, where they do have to prove that they have a disability.”