The leaders of New Jersey dogfighting rings could be charged under the same antiracketeering laws used to prosecute mobsters under a bill proposed by two state senators.
If prosecuted under the state's antiracketeering (RICO) statute, organizers of dogfighting networks could face tough new penalties - up to 20 years in prison - in cases where violence or guns were involved. The state also could seize profits or property gained from dogfighting, a penalty that animal-rights groups see as an important deterrent.
"You can judge a society by the way it treats its most vulnerable," said Sen. Jeff Van Drew (D., Cape May), a sponsor of the bill. "Those that abuse animals in this way, in this severe way, are often individuals that go on to commit heinous acts against adults and children."
Van Drew and Thomas Kean Jr. (R., Union), another sponsor of the legislation, also have proposed a bill that would let judges issue restraining orders to protect pets in domestic disputes.
While dogfighting already is illegal in New Jersey, the proposed bill would make the state the fourth in the country to bring leaders of dogfighting rings under RICO statutes, according to the Senate Republican office. Oregon, Utah, and Virginia have similar laws.
With gambling and other illegal profits tied to dogfighting networks, Kean said, it makes sense to charge the leading offenders under the laws that most famously exist to combat organized crime.
"The RICO charges are really the only true statute that exists that hits the depth and breadth of these dogfighting rings," Kean said.
Under current state laws, dogfighting carries a penalty of three to five years in prison, a fine of up to $15,000, or both. The range of penalties is the same whether the person gambles on or hosts a fight, or is an active organizer who keeps and trains the dogs.
The existing penalties would remain for people who own or train fighting dogs, permit dogfights on their property, or bet on dogfights.
Under the senators' plan, a dogfighting organizer or financier would face much stiffer sentences: five to 10 years in prison, a fine of up to $150,000, or both. Because being a leader could trigger the state's RICO laws, the penalty would grow if the organizer was convicted of a violent offense or gun crime in connection with dogfighting.
The state also could seize the profits garnered by dogfighting leaders.
"You've made a half-million dollars and bought a real nice house? . . . The government can take that away from you," said John Goodwin, manager of animal-fighting issues for the Humane Society of the United States. The threat of such losses "can be a very effective tool," he said.
Laws to combat dogfighting have gained momentum since the 2007 conviction of National Football League star Michael Vick, now a backup quarterback for the Eagles.
Goodwin said that 29 dogfighting laws have been approved since that case wrapped up: one on the federal level, one in Washington, and 27 in state legislatures.
Matt Stanton, a spokesman for the New Jersey Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, said dogfighting cases in the state had remained relatively steady - 30 to 40 per year - but he suspects that publicity surrounding the crime has driven some organizations deeper underground.
Any steps to toughen dogfighting laws is helpful, he said, though he noted that the intensity of prosecution varies. Some local police and prosecutors don't crack down on animal cruelty as hard as other crimes, Stanton said, while "others understand it's a big problem."
Van Drew's and Kean's bill pertaining to restraining orders in domestic disputes also is aimed at protecting animals.
The lawmakers and animal-rights spokesmen said that pets make easy targets in family conflicts. Violence against animals, they added, often spills over into other areas.
"If somebody's going to beat up an animal, they don't have a problem throwing their fists around," Stanton said.
Thirteen states, Washington, and Puerto Rico allow for these types of restraining orders, according to the Senate GOP.
Both the dogfighting and restraining-order bills were recently introduced, making it unlikely that they will be approved before Jan. 12, when the current legislative session ends and a new one begins. Kean said introducing the proposals would help set the stage for passage in the next session.