The General Assembly today approved legislation to prevent the misrepresentation of pets as service animals. The bill now goes to the governor.
The legislation (2019-S 0308A, 2019-H 5299aa), sponsored by Sen. Roger A. Picard and Rep. Bernard A. Hawkins, prevents owners from misrepresenting a pet as a service animal in order to gain access to rights or privileges reserved for disabled individuals with service animals.
“Service animals are highly trained at great expense, and they provide potentially life-saving assistance to the people they serve. The people they serve need their service animals by their side at all times, and that’s why exceptions exist for them that let them bring them into places where other animals aren’t allowed. People who aren’t disabled who are trying to get the same rights for themselves that are granted to disabled people are taking unfair advantage of these exceptions, and shouldn’t be undermining their purpose. They are also putting business owners like restaurant operators in an uncomfortable position, because they have a duty to follow health codes that don’t allow animals unless they are real service animals in order to keep their patrons safe and their facilities clean. This bill is meant as a deterrent to discourage people from abusing service animal laws,” said Senator Picard (D-Dist. 20, Woonsocket, Cumberland).
The legislation defines service animals as dogs that have been or are being specifically trained to assist an individual with a disability, including guide dogs and hearing dogs. The bill makes it a civil infraction to misrepresent an animal as a service animal to gain a privilege reserved for them, and makes violations punishable by up to 30 hours of community service for an organization that serves disabled people.
“It is fundamentally unfair to people with actual disabilities for others to misrepresent the same conditions. Misrepresenting a service animal defrauds actual service dog users, and businesses and agencies that work with people who employ service dogs. This legislation protects these parties as well as providing an appropriate punishment for those who try to game the system with fake service animals,” said Representative Hawkins (D-Dist. 53, Smithfield, Glocester).
The bill also states that businesses may post a decal in a front window or door stating that service animals are welcome and that misrepresentation of a service animal is a violation of Rhode Island law.