Tennessee lawmakers on the Senate Judiciary Committee are scheduled today to consider a package of five bills designed to take a bite out of vicious dog attacks.
The bills, sponsored by state Sen. Doug Jackson, D-Dickson, would create penalties for dog owners who allow their dogs to run at large if that dog attacks an innocent victim. The legislation also closes current loopholes that allow owners of vicious dogs to escape penalty. According to Jackson, the largest loophole is the so-called "first-bite free" rule that says the first time a dog bites or attacks someone, the owner is not held liable.
The penalties in Jackson's bills range from a year in prison and a $2,500 fine (a Class A misdemeanor) all the way up to three to 17 years in prison (Class C felony).
"Owners of vicious dogs beware," Jackson said in a prepared release. "When a dog attacks, it's serious. The punishment should fit the crime."
In remarks prepared for an op-ed column, Jackson cited the results of three vicious dog attacks.
One occurred to Susan Putz-Drury of Bon Aqua last June when she was mauled by a pack of six ferocious dogs.
"She still bears the scars from the 83 stitches and 15 staples it took doctors to seal her wounds. ... The owner of the dogs was fined a measly $50," Jackson wrote.
Another was James Chapple, a Memphis man attacked by two pit bulls on Feb. 9. A bystander saved Chapple's life by fighting off the dogs with a piece of pipe - but not before the pit bulls tore off Chapple's left arm.
"As of today, Chapple is hospitalized, receiving intensive therapy in an attempt to save his remaining arm," Jackson said.
The third attack happened to Franklin Countian Dianna Acklen, who was attacked and killed by vicious dogs while she was taking her daily walk.
"Investigators estimated the dogs bit her over 300 times. The Franklin County district attorney stated it was the worst thing he had seen in all of his years as a prosecutor," Jackson said.
Jackson stressed that more than 7,000 Tennesseans needed medical treatment for dog bites in 2005.
If Jackson's bills run into trouble, it could be because two of them have substantial fiscal notes taxpayers would have to finance. The bills upgrading misdemeanors to felonies would create incarceration expenses.
At the very least, Jackson's legislation has opened a debate on laws he considers to be outdated.
In addition to video and photographic evidence, Jackson's presentation to the committee is expected to feature testimony from law enforcement and animal control officials, victims of dog attacks, and attorney Kenneth Phillips (www.dogbitelaw.com), a dog bite law authority who has appeared on CNN, NBC, CBS, ABC, MSNBC, FoxNews Channel and Court TV.
"Vicious dogs are dangerous weapons on four legs," Jackson said. "If someone chooses to own such dogs, they also choose to bear the responsibility for controlling them. No one else should have to suffer through the horror that has been inflicted upon Susan Putz-Drury, James Chapple, Dianna Acklen, and far too many other innocent Tennesseans by vicious dogs running loose. Imagine if you or someone you love were the victim. Wouldn't you want the dog's owner held responsible?"
For more about the legislation go to www.legislature.state.tn.us.