RD275 - Dog Attacks in Virginia

Executive Summary:
On March 8, eighty-two year old Dorothy Sullivan was killed in her front yard by a neighbor’s pit bull. In response to this tragedy, Senator R. Edward Houck sent a letter to the Crime Commission, asking for a study on dog attacks in Virginia, and the advisability of passing legislation that would make the owner of a dog involved in a serious attack on a person guilty of a felony.

While the number of fatal dog attacks in Virginia over the past thirty years has fortunately been low, dog attacks are a very real problem—each year, thousands of people in Virginia are bitten, with anywhere from eighty to a hundred victims requiring overnight hospital treatment or more because of the extent of their injuries.

When these attacks are due to the criminal negligence of the owner, who knew of the dog’s aggressive tendencies, but failed to keep the animal properly secured, a crime has been committed. If the attack results in a death, the owner can be found guilty of involuntary manslaughter. While there have not been any such cases in Virginia to date, the existing doctrines of manslaughter should prove sufficient to sustain a conviction. Thus, there is no need to create a specialized manslaughter statute for fatal dog attacks.

If such an attack does not result in a death, though, the owner can only be found guilty of the misdemeanor of assault and battery. To the extent the legislature wishes to increase the penalty for this type of criminally negligent conduct, it would have to do so by statute. Virginia currently has misdemeanor statutory provisions that relate to the handling and control of dogs by their owners, including a comprehensive scheme for having aggressive dogs judicially declared “dangerous” or “vicious.” However, any new felony statute that criminalizes owners who recklessly allow their animals to roam at large and attack people should not be incorporated in these existing statutes. If a dog attacks and causes severe injury to someone, and the owner is at fault due to a reckless failure to contain the previously violent animal, it should not be a defense in a criminal prosecution that the dog had not been officially labeled “dangerous” at the time of the attack.

One minor change should be made to the “dangerous dog” statute. Code of Virginia § 3.1-796.93:1 only allows animal control officers to apply for a dog to be declared “dangerous” or “vicious.” The statute should be modified, so that regular law enforcement officers may also be allowed to apply for a court hearing when they become aware of a dangerously aggressive dog in their jurisdiction.

These legislative changes are included in two identical bills, House Bill 1039 and Senate Bill 491. House Bill 1039, 2006 General Assembly, Regular Session. (Va. 2006); Senate Bill 491, 2006 General Assembly, Regular Session (Va. 2006). See Attachment A.