Vick Case Highlights the Growing Problem of Dog Fighting and the Difficulty of Prosecuting This Heinous Crime

Update December 1, 2007: A grand jury in Surrey County, Virginia has indicted Vick and his co-conspirators, Purnell PEace and Quanis Phillips on 2 felony counts related to dog fighting: beating or killing a dog or causing dogs to fight and promoting dogfighting. Each count carries a 5 year maximum sentence. Check Animal Law Coalition’s Laws for a coimplete copy of the Virginia dog fighting law. A trial is set for April 2, 2008.  

Original Report: The reluctance of Surrey County, Virginia’s District Attorney, Gerald Poindexter, to prosecute Michael Vick or anyone else for the dog fighting operation found on his property there, highlights the difficulty of enforcing most dog fighting laws.

Though dog fighting is illegal in all 50 states and a felony in all except Wyoming and Idaho, many aspects of dog fighting are not always illegal. In some states, for example, authorities must actually catch someone in the act of dog fighting in order to prosecute a crime. It may not be illegal in a particular jurisdiction to promote, stage, provide equipment or property for, arrange, gamble on or attend a dog fight; possess dog fighting paraphernalia or own, breed or train dogs for fighting.

Check your state’s dog fighting law in our Laws section.

Authorities rarely catch anyone actually at a dog fight. The fights can be spontaneous and are usually easy to disband; within minutes, the participants can be long gone – the human ones, that is. (Investigators who find the scene of a fight sometimes see dogs still fighting. They find dogs bleeding, badly injured and disabled, just left at the scene. Others are abandoned because they have lost their owners’ money in fights. In the inner cities, the authorities find fighting dogs housed in abandoned buildings or tied up on the streets.) Also, many dog fighting laws have light penalties.

Poindexter, for example, expressed disbelief the federal government was “getting involved in a dog fighting case”. He explained if Vick was not a celebrity, the case would not be a priority. He explained dog fighting is the lowest grade of felony in Virginia with a maximum penalty of 5 years imprisonment and a $2500 fine. (For comparison, note that Giants linebacker Antonio Pierce was fined $15,000 last season by the NFL for a late hit on Vick.) Experts believe if convicted under state law, Vick would not receive prison time.

That may change, though, with the newly enacted Animal Fighting Prohibition Enforcement Act. 7 U.S.C. Sec 2156. That law gives federal prosecutors the authority for the first time to charge felonies for participating in the sale or other movement of dogs across state or national lines for fighting. Also pending before Congress is the Dog Fighting Prohibition Act, discussed more fully the Pending Bills on this site. That proposed law would make participating in, sponsoring or attending a dog fight or moving or receiving dogs for fighting federal crimes.

Also, a number of dog fighting task forces have sprung up in the past few years. Law enforcement has joined forces to attack this problem and shut down this blood sport. Already there have been several raids on suspected dog fighting operations around the country.

Prosecutors are increasingly likely to demand prison time for those convicted of involvement in this blood sport. Dog fighting is a growing, lucrative blood sport worldwide. According to the Humane Society of the United States, it is estimated approximately 20,000-40,000 people in the U.S. alone participate in dog fighting, believed to be a growing multibillion-dollar industry worldwide. It is an activity that cuts across geographic, socio-economic and cultural lines. Though it is still very popular in rural areas, dog fighting is becoming more of an urban phenomenon, run by gangs in the inner cities.

Most of the dogs used for fighting are American pit bull terriers. A pit bull puppy can cost as much as $5,000. An average dog fight carries a $10,000 purse but they can be much higher.

Dog fighting among professional athletes

Michael Vick is not the only professional athlete who has been alleged to be involved in dog fighting. Former NFL running back LeShon Johnson pleaded guilty to three charges related to dogfighting in 2005. Johnson is serving a five-year deferred sentence.

Washington Redskins players Clinton Portis and Chris Samuels have publicly defended Vick, basically saying dog fighting should be legal, that it is a “prevalent part of life”. They were incredulous Vick might go to jail “for no reason”, “over a dog fight”. Portis later apologized for his comments.

Authorities believe dog fighting is part of the culture of professional athletes who participate probably for the excitement. Dog fighting and owning “tough” or “mean” dogs have even been glamorized in some circles in popular culture. It is no longer only the criminal dog fighter who wants to own tough or aggressive pit bulls. Owning such a dog is now a status symbol among some young men. The demand for “tough” or “mean” dogs has increased the breeding and training of these dogs, mostly pit bulls, for aggression and fighting. These dogs are filling the shelters and adding to the problem of unwanted dogs that are not adoptable because of aggression.

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