Animal Attorneys Demand That Virginia Legislature Strengthen Prosecutors' Ability to Combat DogfightingAugust 23rd, 2007
Proposed Amendment to State RICO Act Could Send Dogfighters to Jail for 40 Years
Richmond, Va. – The Animal Legal Defense Fund is approaching Virginia legislators to back a proposed law that, if in place, could send dogfighters like Michael Vick to jail for up to 40 years on a first conviction. ALDF has drafted a recommended amendment to Virginia state law that would enable prosecutors to charge dogfighters under the state RICO (“Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act”) statute. RICO—a very powerful tool that prosecutors can use to combat organized criminal operations—is commonly used to address a wide variety of organized criminal efforts, including drug dealing, gambling, and trading in child pornography.
Given the power to utilize a state RICO case in a dogfighting operation, prosecutors would have increased muscle in seeking justice for the animals abused, and, as in the Vick case, even executed by their owners. While dogfighting is already illegal in 50 states and by federal law, the ability to bring a RICO case would provide specific advantages to prosecutors overseeing dogfighting investigations, including extended statutes of limitations, longer sentences, and larger fines. Prosecutors also have the power to “seize and freeze” defendant assets prior to conviction in a RICO case. If Michael Vick’s charges had been part of a racketeering case, the authorities could have seized the Surry County house he used for his kennel operations and dogfights—a house he sold for well below market value shortly after the first search warrant was executed.
“The vast majority of all dogfighting cases are discovered as a collateral matter to some other type of criminal investigation, be it a drug case, a gambling investigation or simply in response to a 9-1-1 dispatch to a domestic disturbance,” says ALDF Executive Director Stephen Wells. “Adding dogfighting as a RICO predicate would give law enforcement and prosecutors an additional tool, and strong incentive, to start directly targeting organized dogfighting rings—not to mention that it would send a very strong message to the dogfighting community that the stakes just got substantially higher.” In Virginia, a first conviction for racketeering carries a maximum 40 year sentence (on a second conviction, the defendant can get a life sentence); on its own, dogfighting is a “class 6” felony, allowing for only a five year maximum sentence.
ALDF is now actively seeking legislative support for the proposed amendment among Virginia lawmakers, and are pushing for a similar amendment in Georgia, home of Vick’s Atlanta Falcons. Such an amendment could eventually be applied in each of the 32 states that have RICO laws and even in the case of the federal RICO Act. Currently, Oregon is the only state that specifically includes dogfighting in its list of RICO predicate acts.