Civil penalties would be established for falsely claiming that an untrained animal is a service animal if Senate Bill 2461 becomes law.

Under the measure, the legal definition of “service dog” would become “service animal” and fraudulently claiming a service animal could result in a fine of  $100 to $250 for the first violation. Subsequent violations could bring fines of more than $500.

Sen. Russell Ruderman introduced the bill to clarify the distinction between Americans with Disabilities Act-defined service animals and other support animals and pets. He says more more people are bringing their animals into public places and claiming they are service animals.

He said he hopes to protect the rights of legitimate service animals and their owners by trying to reduce the problem of misrepresented animals.

Legitimate service animals are defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act. Courtesy: Americans with Disabilities Act webiste

The Hawaii Civil Rights Commission opposes the bill, arguing that prosecuting people falsely claiming to have service animals could create problems for disabled people who mistakenly mislabel their assistance animals as service animals.

Francine Wai, executive director of the Disabilities and Communications Access Board, a public advocacy group for people with disabilities, supports the intent of reducing service animal misrepresentation, but is wary of how enforcement and investigations might be conducted without violating federal rules. She supports creating a working group to find out if prosecution of such cases is even possible.

The state Attorney General’s office noted in written testimony that the penalties are not confined to the animal owner and that the bill does not define the context in which people can be penalized.

“There are no rules or regulations on service animals for public accommodations. A service animal is trained for a purpose and it needs to be able to focus on its job.” — Peter Fritz

Peter Fritz, a former member of the Disability and Communications Access Board, testified that guidelines for enforcement of SB 2461 can be modeled after states that have already created such laws. He said 19 states have passed similar legislation.

Fritz said other animals can distract service animals and hinder them from doing their jobs.

“There are no rules or regulations on service animals for public accommodations,” said Fritz. “A service animal is trained for a purpose and it needs to be able to focus on its job.”

SB 2461 bill has cleared the Senate and is awaiting a hearing from the House Judiciary Committee, chaired by Rep. Scott Nishimoto. No hearing has been scheduled.

Ruderman said his bill does not affect the standing of assistance animals. Some testifiers would like to see false claims regarding assistance animals confronted as well.

While the names are similar, there are significant differences between service animals and assistance animals.

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 defines a service animal as a dog, or in some cases miniature horses, that has been trained to work or perform tasks that benefit an individual with a disability. They are allowed in publicly accommodated places.

Assistance animals are not pets and include emotional support animals and therapy animals, according to the Hawaii Civil Rights Commission. They are not limited to dogs and horses and have no training requirement.

Under state and federal fair housing laws, housing providers must allow assistance animals to people with disabilities who need them in order to afford them equal opportunity.  

John Morris, another supporter of SB 2461, testified that he represented the Liliuokalani Gardens at Waikiki condominiums in a lawsuit in 2012.

Morris recalled that the defendant claimed to need an assistance animal to alleviate his fear of open spaces. Later Morris found out that the defendant was a private pilot.

“It’s very easy for someone who wants to have a pet to get a letter from a healthcare professional saying that that animal is absolutely necessary because it’s an assistance animal,” said Morris.

Property manager Tom Lonigro of Liliuokalani Gardens at Waikiki says that if a tenant has a doctor’s note for an assistance animal, it must be accepted.

He said many property managers do not know what their legal rights are in addressing assistance animals, and that can be unfair to other tenants.

“If someone buys into a condominium with the expectation that it’s a non-pet-friendly building, that expectation is gone,” said Lonigro.“There’s no protection for the condominium or the association itself.”

William Hoshijo, executive director of the Hawaii Civil Rights Commission, says determining whether use of an assistance animal is a reasonable accommodation has to be determined by tenants and housing providers. He says that housing providers have the right to consider whether an animal poses a threat to the health and safety of others.

“We usually don’t see people coming to us who are claiming that they’re disabled when they don’t have a disability,” said Hoshijo. “There may be people like that, but they don’t get to us.”

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