ST. GEORGE – A bill making the intentional killing of a police K-9 officer a second-degree felony passed its last hurdle in the Legislature Thursday.
Passing the House floor with a 43-24 vote, the bill calling for amendments to law pertaining to police service animals, designated SB 57 in the 2018 Utah Legislature, now goes to the governor’s desk.
“It’s a tremendous loss to lose one of these animals,” bill co-sponsor Rep. V. Lowry Snow, R-Santa Clara, said on the House floor, adding that when someone knowingly and intentionally kills a police dog, that person is “just a step away from taking the life of one of our law enforcement officers.”
Watch the video top of this report.
Snow echoed words shared by Sen. Jani Iwamoto, D-Holladay, the bill’s author, during a House committee meeting Wednesday. It is currently a second-degree felony to steal a police dog, she said, yet only a third-degree felony to kill one.
By taking the penalty for intentionally killing a police dog to a second-degree felony, an individual faces between one and 15 years in prison and up to a $10,000 fine. A third-degree felony carries a sentence of zero to five years and a fine of up to $5,000.
“Police dogs are more than just animals,” Unified Police Lt. Chad Reyes said before the House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee Wednesday. Reyes was partnered with K-9 officer Dingo, who was killed in the line of duty in July 2017.
Reyes credits Dingo’s sacrifice, as well as that of another police dog named Aldo killed in the line of duty in 2016, with saving his and other officers’ lives.
Also present at the committee was former Washington County Sheriff’s Deputy Mike Graf, the handler of now-retired police K-9 Tess. The former police dog was by Graf’s side at the hearing as he recounted the story of how she was shot in the face by a carjacking suspect in Washington County in August 2017.
Though Tess survived the incident and returned to active duty for a short while, she was ultimately retired from duty due to lingering injuries. Following her retirement, Tess was adopted by Graf.
Graf, who now works for the Utah County Sheriff’s Office, said Tess was a part of the community she kept safe.
Snow shared examples Graf gave during Wednesday’s committee hearing of Tess working in the community. In one case she was able to find a handgun thrown into a field frequently traversed by children on their way to school. Tess found the gun shortly before students started heading to school that morning, which may have helped avert a potential tragedy, Snow said. In another case, Tess found a teen girl who had run away from a wilderness program and was attempting to hide in the desert.
In both incidents, Tess was able to find an item and individual much faster than her human counterparts.
Like other police dogs, Tess has also been involved in sniffing out narcotics, as well as serving as something of a social ambassador for the police when Graf took her to schools to interact with students.
“These police dogs don’t have a voice to speak for themselves,” Graf said. They rely on us as their handlers to speak for them …. That’s why I’m here today.”
The committee voted unanimously to move the bill to the House floor.
As the bill was debated on the House floor the next day, a majority of those who spoke to the bill were supportive of it. However, Rep. Daniel McCay, R-Riverton, was not among them, saying he believes the animals are used more like weapons.
“They are trained as an authorized used of force,” McCay said. “… An animal in that position is used much more like a weapon and less like a police officer. We don’t use our own officers as weapons.”
McCay also took issue with raising the penalty in the wake of legislative efforts to lower penalties for certain offenses.
Snow responded by saying those efforts focus on nonviolent drug offenses geared to getting offenders treatment. In contrast, he said, killing a police dog, often seen as a police officer in its own right, is a much more violent and serious crime.
“Killing a police dog as a result of apprehension is as violent as taking the life of an officer,” Snow said, “except it’s not a human being.”
When the Senate passed the bill last week, Sen. Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, was among those who voted against it.
“While well-intended, the challenge with this bill is that it does raise the penalty for killing a police dog above that of crimes against humans in some cases,” Vickers said in a weekly legislative email update. “Because of the uncertainty surrounding this significant policy change, I voted against the bill.”
The bill passed the Senate Feb. 13 with a 20-6 vote with three senators absent or not voting.
The legislation now goes to Gov. Gary Herbert for signing.
How did Southern Utah’s legislators vote?
Reps. Walt Brooks, Mike Nelson, Mike Noel, V. Lowry Snow and John Westwood voted in favor of the bill. Rep. Travis Seegmiller voted against the bill, and Rep. Brad Last was absent for the vote.
Sen. Don Ipson voted for the bill, while Sen. Evan Vickers did not. Sens. David Hinkins and Ralph Okerlund were absent for the vote.
- Read the bill: Utah 2018 Senate Bill 57 First substitute – Police Service Animal Admendments
- Contact legislators
- Bill sponsor: Sen. Jani Iwamoto | House sponsor: Rep V. Lowry Snow
- Southern Utah Sens. Evan Vickers, Don Ipson, David Hinkins and Ralph Okerlund | Listing of all senators.
- Southern Utah Reps. Travis Seegmiller, Bradley Last, V. Lowry Snow, Walt Brooks, John Westwood, Merrill Nelson and Michael Noel | Listing of all members of the House of Representatives.
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