Thanks to the Americans With Disabilities Act, persons with service animals can bring their specially trained companion animals wherever they go, including restaurants, grocery stores, and other places where pets are otherwise prohibited due to health code laws. But some people falsely claim their pet is a service animal to take the creature wherever they go or to keep it in a residence where pets are not allowed. Just like disability placard abuse, wrongly taking advantage of these laws designed to help disabled persons is a form of fraud. Those who commit service dog fraud will face criminal charges under California penal code 365.7 (PC). If you have been accused of this crime, do not speak to the police without a lawyer present to protect your rights.
Service Dog Fraud: California Penal Code 365.7 (PC)
For someone to be guilty of service dog fraud, that person must have knowingly and fraudulently represented themself as an owner or trainer of a service, guide, or signal animal. Knowledge is a critical component of this law, as it protects someone who mistakenly believed an animal was trained to help them with their disability. In other words, imagine if a blind person was told they were given a guide dog, but that dog was not adequately trained to perform such functions. In that case, the individual would not be guilty of service dog fraud because they legitimately believed the dog was a guide dog. At the same time, if they wrongly thought the dog was a seeing-eye dog because they purchased it from someone who falsely claimed to be a trainer, the fraudulent trainer could be charged under 365.7 (PC).
Service Animals Aren’t Always Dogs
It is worth recognizing that under the law, service animals are not legally required to be dogs. Because some people have allergies or religious beliefs that prohibit them from working with dogs, service animals may also be pigs, miniature horses, and other animals trained to perform such duties. As long as the animal is properly trained, the species of the animal is irrelevant to whether or not it qualifies as a proper service animal.
Unfortunately, not everyone is aware of this fact, and many people with other creatures operating as legal service animals are accused of lying about the legitimacy of their companion animals. If you have a non-dog service animal and police have wrongly accused you of service animal fraud, a criminal attorney can help you protect your rights.
Conditions that Require Service Animals
When most people envision a service animal, they think of a seeing-eye dog. However, not all service animals are trained to help the blind. Many medical and psychological conditions require a service animal; unfortunately, not everyone is aware of this fact. Among other things, service dogs can help persons who:
- are deaf
- in a wheelchair
- are diabetic
- have epilepsy
- suffer from PTSD
Again, if police have wrongly accused you of lying because you have a legitimate service animal that does not help with vision impairment, a San Diego criminal defense lawyer can help.
What is the Penalty for Using a Fake Service Dog?
Falsely representing a pet as a service animal is a misdemeanor. Those convicted of this crime could face up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $1,000. Under Health and Safety Code 122317 (HSC), trainers of emotional support animals and businesses that sell certificates, IDs, and leashes for emotional support animals (ESA) must clarify that these creatures are not service dogs and cannot be legally represented as such. A first-time violation of 122317 (HSC) is punishable by up to $500, while a second offense will result in a fine of $1,500, and any subsequent offenses will cost the offender $2,500.
Similarly, 122318 (HSC) requires healthcare practitioners to establish a relationship with and fully evaluate a patient before providing documentation permitting them to have an ESA. Keep in mind ESAs are not service dogs, and a pet documented as an ESA may be permitted to reside in a residence where they may normally be denied but cannot be admitted into restaurants, healthcare settings, grocery stores, and other locations where companion animals would normally be denied. Healthcare practitioners who violate this law may be disciplined by their profession’s licensing board.
Defenses to This Crime
Defenses include ignorance of the fact that the animal was not trained as a service dog or that your animal was trained as a service dog even though your disability is not immediately apparent. Alternatively, if you have a disorder and have found that your pet has managed to help you better deal with the condition, you may have wrongly believed that would qualify it as a service dog. You should only be found guilty of this crime if you knowingly misrepresented a pet as a service dog and, thus, committed fraud.
Whatever the specifics of your case, always speak with an attorney before you talk to the police, as anything you say to the police could inadvertently hurt your defense later on. If you have been accused of service dog fraud in California, please call (760) 643-4050 or (858) 486-3024 to schedule a free initial consultation with Peter M. Liss.