TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) -- Penalties would increase for people who injure or kill dogs or horses that work with police officers and other first responders, under measures moving through the Legislature.
The Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday backed the Senate version of the bill (SB 96), filed by Fernandina Beach Republican Aaron Bean, while the House version (HB 67), sponsored by Rep. Josie Tomkow, R-Polk City, and Rep. Cord Byrd, R-Neptune Beach, has cruised through two subcommittees.
The Bean bill would make it a second-degree felony, up from a third-degree felony, for people who kill or cause great bodily harm to police, fire or search-and-rescue dogs or police horses. The change would boost the amount of potential prison time from five years to 15 years.
Bean said the bill is, in part, spurred by recent incidents involving the deaths of police dogs.
Last September, a 3-year-old member of the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office canine unit named Fang was shot and killed by a teenager fleeing after carjacking two women at a gas station.
Bean said Fang was "executed."
Three months later, Cigo, a 3-year-old Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office's dog, was shot and killed by an attempted-murder suspect outside of a shopping mall.
"We need to respect the bond of an animal and its handler and respect the jobs that these animals do," Bean said.
Incidents involving horses are less frequent, as mounted police units are most commonly used for non-criminal purposes. But a Senate staff analysis noted that in 2016 a reveler who had been drinking at the Gasparilla parade in Tampa punched a 19-year-old horse named Chad.
"These canines are not tools, they are an extension of their handler," said K9s United president and founder Debbie Johnson. "A tool is a taser. These are living breathing animals with a heartbeat. They have one of the most dangerous jobs in law enforcement and are usually one of the first ones in."
Police dogs are used in criminal situations and are often deployed by their handlers to chase after fleeing felons. As a result, the dogs can be caught in the line of fire while on the job.
In Florida, 140 police departments and 65 sheriff's offices used specially-trained canines for purposes such as tracking criminal suspects and detecting drugs and bombs in 2017. Fire departments also use dogs for arson detection.
A nearly 20-year-old federal law, the Federal Law Enforcement Animal Protection Act, made it a crime to willfully and maliciously harm police animals, or to attempt or to do so. That law can lead to prison sentences of up to one year. Also, causing serious injuries or deaths to police animals can lead to 10-year sentences.
The Legislature's Office of Economic and Demographic Research has estimated the Senate proposal would result in "10 or fewer" incarcerations.
Bean's proposal still must get approval from the Rules Committee before it can go to the Senate floor. The House bill still needs to clear the House Judiciary Committee.
(©2019 CBS Local Media. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The News Service of Florida's Jim Turner contributed to this report.)
for more features.