I-Team: Maine lawmakers cracking down on fake service animals
AUGUSTA (WGME) -- As complaints skyrocket, Maine lawmakers are cracking down on people who pass their pets off as service animals.
A bill passed this spring aims to clear up confusion, and doubles the fine for fakers, but federal law makes it nearly impossible to enforce.
Pauline Lamontagne and her dog, Ava, go everywhere together.
Nearly blind since birth, Pauline relies on Ava to see what she can't.
"It gives me more independence," Lamontange said.
But duos like this one are facing greater scrutiny these days, as more pets are passed off as service animals.
Barbara Archer Hirsch was a member of the state task force that just finished its report on the issue. She also works for the Maine Human Rights Commission, and says discrimination complaints rose 76 percent last year. They came from service animal owners claiming they were denied access in public places.
"A lot of businesses and landlords have been 'bitten' for lack of a better term, before, and they find themselves with doubts, even when faced with people who have a legitimate need for their animal," Hirsch said.
Representative Karl Ward proposed a bill last year, after constituents, mostly business owners, told him the so-called fraud is happening in his district.
"In many cases, the service animals in the examples I heard, particularly dogs, were defecating in restaurants, were growling at other customers, were getting loose and running around," Ward said. "They clearly had not gone through basic training."
In an increasingly dog friendly world, where some national retailers welcome canines; officials believe confusion is mostly to blame.
A "service animal" is a dog individually trained to do work or perform tasks for someone who has a disability. They're allowed access to all public places.
There's also an "assistance animal," sometimes called an "emotional support animal," used to mitigate the effects of a physical or mental disability. This can be any species. By law, they're allowed in housing, but not in public.
That's since been clarified in Maine statute, thanks to the task force. But here's where it continues to be tricky: federal law doesn't require any documentation to prove a dog is actually a service animal.
Staff in public places can only ask two questions: Is this a service animal? And what task has it been trained to do?
"I haven't met one person yet who does not want to do the right thing," Ward said.
But they can't always tell if the answer is honest.
Even more troubling, all it takes is a quick web search and a couple hundred bucks to order an official looking vest, ID badge and certificate.
Misrepresentation of a service animal is a civil violation in Maine; now punishable by as much as $1,000 for each occurrence.
"While it is a civil violation, I will tell you what I've found is that it's very rarely prosecuted, how do you enforce that?" Ward said. "Well, if there are no rules for the certification and training and placarding, for instance, of an animal, I'm not sure there's any way to enforce it."
States like North Carolina and Michigan have voluntary registration programs.
"A mandatory registration is prohibited by law both state and federal," Hirsch said.
Maine could follow suit, but Hirsch argues it would add another barrier for those with disabilities.
"They didn't choose to get this card or whatever the registration was, they would be treated as second class and be forced to jump through even more hoops," Hirsch said.
For now, the task force has decided public education may be the best tool; and Pauline agrees.
"And that's one of the frustrations because I think people aren't doing it maliciously I usually hear, well I didn't want to leave my dog in the car," Lamontange said.
Ava won't be leaving her side any time soon.