A new proposed law in New Jersey, Assemby Bill No. 1717, would make “assault by animal” a crime when a person purposely uses an animal to intimidate or put another person in fear of bodily injury.  Most people would think this is a good law.  However, the bill may unintentionally criminalize the use of guard dogs—used to intimidate would-be intruders.

While there are many people who are opposed to the use of dogs to guard property, it is not at all clear that the intent of this proposed law was to criminalize the use of guard dogs.

On November 25, 2013, the New Jersey Judiciary Committee voted in favor of this bill.  During the committee hearing, nj.com reported that Assemblywoman Holly Schepsi abstained from the vote, because she was concerned that homeowners may be charged with this crime if an owner’s dog attacked an intruder in the home.  That question was not answered.

However, if a homeowner could be liable under those circumstances, then it would appear that the owner of a dog used to guard property could be charged with such a crime, no matter how minor the charges. And if an intruder is injured by a dog used in this way, the charges would escalate.

To be clear, the question here is not about whether the use of dogs to guard property should be illegal. Instead, the first question is whether this proposed bill will, intentionally or not, affect a dog owner’s currently legal right to use dogs in this fashion.

This bill exemplifies the complexity of issues involving animals and the law, and the necessity to carefully review the impact of any bill proposals, for the intended and untended consequences that would result from its adoption.  While the intent of this bill may be laudable—to criminalize the act of attacking another person with the use of an animal, the language should be clarified to protect home owners and property owners.  On the other hand, if the intent includes the elimination of the use of guard dogs, that should be clearly articulated in the bill statement, to ensure that public discussion on the merits of such a proposal occurs before the bill becomes law.