The Montana House on Monday endorsed a bill that would set fines for people who misrepresent their pets as service animals in order to bring them into public places such as grocery stores or restaurants.
The House voted 85-15 in favor of the bill. It faces a final vote before moving to the Senate.
The bill, by Republican Rep. Denley Loge, identifies service animals as dogs or miniature horses trained to do work or a task for a person with a disability. It states emotional support animals are not service animals.
"I've seen a major influx in fake service dogs in the past three years," David Riggs, founder of K9 Care of Montana, told the House Judiciary Committee earlier this month, saying he blamed it on a lack of education and the ease with which people can buy a fake service dog vest online.
"It's sad that people with real service dogs who have put in the time and the trouble are being discriminated against because of these fake service dogs," said Deb Killpack, who said she filed a complaint against a hotel that discriminated against her because she sought to check in with her service dog.
Other supporters said they knew of service dogs that had been attacked or lunged at by other dogs, an act that could injure or kill the highly trained animals or interfere with their ability to do their job.
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Service dogs can be trained to be guide dogs for the blind, hearing dogs for the deaf, provide mobility assistance for people in wheelchairs and be trained to respond to seizures or low blood sugar in diabetics, Loge said.
Businesses that prohibit pets would be required to post signs saying they welcome service animals and are legally allowed to ask the owner if the animal is a service animal required because of a disability and what work or task the animal is trained to perform.
Businesses may not file complaints against suspected violators unless they post a public notice that says they reserve the right to file a complaint over the misrepresentation of service animals.
Animals that are not under their handler's control or are not housebroken may be asked to leave under the bill, which matches language in the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.
After an initial warning, people found guilty of misrepresentation of a service animal could be fined $50 for a first offense, $75 to $200 for a second offense and $100 to $1,000 for a third offense. Violators could also be sentenced to perform community service for an organization that advocates on behalf of persons with disabilities.
Another bill to create penalties for harassing or harming a service animal is scheduled to be heard by the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.