Reality Check: Why police can enforce some service animal laws and not others

A federal law provides protections for people with service animals, and North Carolina has its own law, as well. But Buncombe County Animal Services Sgt. Jim Robinson said even the state law is hard to enforce. (Photo credit: WLOS staff)

When it comes to service animals, a local animal control officer said the law makes it hard for them to help.

A federal law provides protections for people with service animals, and North Carolina has its own law, as well. But Buncombe County Animal Services Sgt. Jim Robinson said even the state law is hard to enforce.

Meet Guinness

"Guinness, come here. Sit, down. Thank you," Denise Butkowski said to her service dog.

Guinness goes where Butkowski goes.

"He's trained to be my mobility service dog and will help me with counter balance," Butkowski explained.

Most of the the time she has no problems.

"I have found it very welcoming, so far," Butkowski said.

But on a recent flight, a passenger asked improper questions about Guinness.

"I like to be open, and I don't mind questions being asked," Butkowski said.

But people need to understand that when they see a service animal out, it's working, and they shouldn't try to pet it.

While Butkowski's experiences have been mostly pleasant, the same can't be said for Rachel Gay.

"I've been denied access with a service animal protected under federal law," Gay said.

The other side

The Hendersonville woman said a restaurant employee told her she couldn't enter with her dog.

What happened to Gay and her service dog Dexter bothers Butkowski.

"I just thought that was so unjust, because that dog is a perfect service dog and why they would question that was beyond me," Butkowski said.

A restaurant employee called police.

"Right now, it's decision time, OK? Right now, it's the point where you guys can either stay or you can go, because right now we're kind of flirting on the whether this (inaudible) trespassing or not. OK. Seriously. Yes," the officer can be heard saying on video.

News 13's reporting on the encounter Gay had with a Hendersonville police officer led to retraining for them. A Buncombe County sergeant also saw the video Gay's fiancee filmed of the encounter.

"I felt very strongly about people needing to understand it's not that officers don't want to help them with this, it's sometimes we don't have the tools to do it," Robinson said.

The law(s)

The Americans with Disabilities Act is a federal law. Local officers can only enforce the state law, Robinson said. The ADA does not require any kind of documentation, but state law says a person with a service animal may get protections by having a tag from the Department of Health and Human Service, or by showing the animal is trained as a service animal. Robinson said that's where it gets tough for police.

"The statutes are kind of poorly written, and it's just about impossible to enforce at this point," he said.

The state law also provides protections for people with service animals in training. Robinson said that makes it even harder for someone to prove his or her dog is legitimate or hard for police to prove it's fake.

"How do you do that?," Robinson asked.

He said the law would be easier to enforce if people had to get a tag for their service animal.

"Yeah, let's just do the tags, do whatever you have got to do.And that makes it that much simpler. If they show the tag, they get in or they don't. Someone gets a ticket or they don't. That just makes it simpler, much easier to enforce," Robinson said.

Even that wouldn't solve this problem: If a business refuses to serve a person with a service animal, officers can cite the business, but that's it, Robinson said.

"We don't have the authority, we can't make you let someone into your business. That's something a court would have to order, but we can't make them do it. We can charge them, but we can't force them to serve this person," Robinson said.

If a business refuses to serve a customer with a service animal, officers can then only recommend a person sue.

"If you would like to pursuit a civil case, you're more than welcome to," the officer told Gay. "If you want to stay here, you can, but they just don't want the animal inside."

Gay, who is autistic, said she just wants to live a normal life.

Trying to live a normal life is why people like Gay and Butkowski have service dogs.

"He gives me more confidence to go out," Butkowski said.

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