Georgia lawmakers seek to toughen penalties for dogfighting

Georgia could convict more people of dogfighting-related crimes and send them to prison for longer stretches under a bill advancing in the state Senate.

The Senate Public Safety Committee voted 6-3 Wednesday to approve Senate Bill 68, which would apply Georgia’s racketeer influenced and corrupt organizations law to dogfighting. Applying the state RICO law would result in prison sentences of five to 20 years for convictions, up from one to 10 years now.

"I hope this will give our police and prosecutors a stronger tool to target these organized criminals," said the bill’s sponsor, Republican Sen. Rick Williams of Milledgeville.

The measure moves to the full Senate for more debate.

It’s one of a wave of Republican-sponsored bills advancing in Georgia taking a tough-on-crime approach to prosecution, prison terms and the ability of judges to show mercy.

The measure would make dogfighting the 43rd offense that could be used to charge crimes under the state RICO act, which can be used to make members of a criminal conspiracy liable for any crime committed by any other member of the conspiracy. The law is favorite of prosecutors who target groups of people committing crimes together.

Supporters said that dogfighting is often found alongside other crimes such as gang activity, illegal drug activity, illegal weapons and human trafficking. Jessica Rock, the statewide animal crimes prosecutor, said the law would also allow the state to throw a broader prosecution net.

"It allows us to go after the conspiracy and allows us to go after the entire criminal enterprise," Rock told the committee.

Prosecutors said, for example, that it would allow them to indict people who may be involved in a dogfighting ring but who live or fight dogs in other counties not covered by a local district attorney.

Now, someone who is a spectator is guilty of a high and aggravated misdemeanor on a first conviction and a felony punishable by one to five years in prison on a second conviction and punishable up to 10 years for a third conviction. Now, spectators could face harsher penalties as well.

Opponents, though, questioned why it was necessary to expand penalties when most offenses are already felonies and penalties get tougher with additional convictions.

"This bill is another example of the Republican Party expanding mandatory minimums, increasing and locking up people for longer periods of time," Sen. Kim Jackson, a Stone Mountain Democrat, said after the hearing. "Dogfighting is illegal already. It’s already a felony. If you do it a second time, the penalties are already enhanced."

Committee members also said they would like to put cockfighting under Georgia’s RICO law, but cockfighting is not currently illegal under state law unless officers catch a cockfight in progress and can charge people with animal cruelty offenses. Instead, prosecutors usually refer cockfighting cases to federal authorities, who have broader laws they can prosecute under.

A bill is pending in the state House that would again attempt to make cockfighting illegal under state law. Senators amended the proposed bill to include those offenses under the state RICO law if it passes.