SALT LAKE CITY — In an effort to combat Utah's weak laws on cockfighting, one Utah lawmaker is hoping to make the "blood sport" a felony offense.
While the actual incidents' associated with cockfighting are low in the state of Utah, Sen. Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake, has introduced his "Game Fowl Fighting Amendments" bill to deter would-be criminals from taking advantage of the state's weaker laws.
Current state law does not define cockfighting, but those charged of harming or "torturing" an animal could be found guilty of animal cruelty, which is a misdemeanor crime with a maximum penalty of $1,000. Under Davis' bill, cockfighting would be a third degree felony, with a possible fine of up to $25,000 being assessed to the individual.
Individuals acting as a spectator could also be found guilty of a class B misdemeanor.
"There is not a major issue in the state," Davis said. "We do have it, yes, but we also don't want to send the word out that it's a misdemeanor in Utah while it's a felony in all the other states around us. It's bringing ourselves in line with all our neighbors."
"All of our surrounding states have it as a felony. We leave our door wide open to let them come in for a slap on the hand misdemeanor — it may be a heavy misdemeanor, but it's still a misdemeanor."
Cockfighting is a felony in 40 states, but has never been formally addressed in the state of Utah.
"All of our surrounding states have it as a felony," Davis said. "We leave our door wide open to let them come in for a slap on the hand misdemeanor — it may be a heavy misdemeanor, but it's still a misdemeanor."
A recent poll conducted by Mason Dixon Polling & Research Inc. found 70 percent of surveyed Utahns favor a bill making cockfighting a crime, while only 15 percent opposed such legislation.
"These survey results confirm Utah residents won't tolerate the cruelty of cockfighting or its association with gambling, drugs and other illicit crimes," said John Goodwin, director of animal cruelty policy for The Humane Society of the United States, in a prepared statement. "An anemic penalty for such a serious crime is out of step with the mainstream values of Utah voters. The Humane Society of the United States urges legislators to pass SB52."
Although the bill would criminalize cockfighting and would come with a stricter penalty, the bill would also open the doors for police officers to enter "any place, building, or tenement" where cockfighting is taking place.
Most often, cockfighting is reserved for arenas or pits; however, cockfighting could be performed in any location, including basements or garages, which could be subject to a warrantless arrest of those participating in cockfighting under Davis' bill.
Davis, however, said there would not be an issue because "cockfighting doesn't happen in the living room or in a person's recreation room."
Davis presented the bill Thursday to the Senate Judiciary, Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee, where he passed around a "spur," a curved blade that is attached to birds in a cockfight.
"I absolutely agree that cockfighting should be a third-degree felony in the state of Utah. In fact, I think it's very important we get it done this year."
"It's a slashing, brutal fight to the end between those birds," Davis explained, in response to questions from Minority Assistant Whip Pat Jones, D-Salt Lake City.
"I didn't understand why anyone would want to do this," Jones said.
The only opposition came from Steve Burton, who spoke on behalf of the Utah Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. Burton's objection was with the bill's language, specifically regarding allowing law enforcement to arrest everyone present at a cockfight and seize property.
Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, raised several concerns and proposed amendments to language in the bill with the intent of making the new law enforceable. Ultimately, it was decided a substitute bill will be drafted and reintroduced to the committee.
"I absolutely agree that cockfighting should be a third-degree felony in the state of Utah," Thatcher said, prefacing his qualms with the bill. "In fact, I think it's very important we get it done this year."
Contributing: McKenzie Romero