NJ needs ‘Aziz’s Law,’ making pet owners criminally responsible (Opinion)
There are no words for the tragedy that happened in Carteret one week ago today when two pit bulls attacked and killed 3-year-old Aziz Ahmed, who was playing in his own backyard. They also put his mother, who was trying to save his life, in the hospital and his 10-year-old brother watched the whole episode unfold in horror.
As I talked about this on New Jersey 101.5, there were two words I had for the owner: criminal responsibility. But that is very limited in New Jersey, according to Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick, a practicing lawyer who came on my show last Thursday night to talk about it.
"The only time the owners are responsible for the dog's action is when the dog is used as a weapon," Bramnick explained.
These dogs were reportedly a menace to the neighborhood. The Ahmed family had complained to the owners twice and were laughed off. Seriously? These owners and all pet owners should be held criminally responsible for the actions of their pets, especially when their pets kill kids. So what according to the law can happen to these owners?
"You got to break it down. You've got a civil case and you've got a criminal case. The civil case is a clear-cut case of liability against the owners of the dog and actually, in New Jersey, when a dog bites someone it's strict liability — there's normally no defense. So clearly in this case, the owners of the dog are liable for money damages," Bramnick said.
"The problem is, most of the time the owners of the dog either don't have sufficient insurance or don't have enough money really to compensate the families."
What about criminal liability?
"The criminal is much more difficult to analyze," he said. "In a criminal case, the only time someone's been charged with aggravated assault with a dog is when they've actually said to the dog attack or sic 'em. We've actually had some cases where police officers came to a door and the dog owner let the dog go at the police officers."
What about this case where a 3-year-old boy is simply playing in his own backyard and the dogs get in?
"In this case, it's very hard to prove an aggravated assault," Bramnick said. "Unless there's some intention on the owners of the dog."
Bramnick continued: "I've spoken to a number of prosecutors today, and most of them thought very rarely do you see a criminal case unless the dogs are instructed to attack. But it's something I think the Legislature should look at, especially under these circumstances. And I'm sure the prosecutor in Middlesex County is looking at it but I would highly doubt without intentional actions that there's going to be an indictment or any criminal charges."
But what about when those dogs are simply dangerous regardless of whether they've been commanded to attack? Shouldn't the owners be responsible for what their dogs do?
"The Legislature should maybe look into that when there's complete disregard or woeful behavior to the point where it's reckless, so if you're able to show that the action was so reckless that you could possibly make out the case but there's not a lot of cases where there was a bite and it wasn't intended by the owners that there was criminal responsibility," Bramnick said.
Based on this story, should we have an "Aziz's Law" where owners are responsible for their pet's action whether commanded or not? This boy's legacy should stand for something.
"The prosecutor would have to show that there was reckless behavior and I don't think the law at this point brings that under the umbrella of the law. But It's something that's going to be discussed in the Legislature, I can guarantee you that."
Hopefully, the Legislature will act and create a law making owners responsible for their pet's actions whether commanded or not. This will not only make the owners more responsible but protect the neighborhood as well.
The post above reflects the thoughts and observations of New Jersey 101.5 talk show host Steve Trevelise. Any opinions expressed are Steve's own. Steve Trevelise is on New Jersey 101.5 Monday-Thursday from 7pm-11pm. Follow him on Twitter @realstevetrev.