- Lester Munson, Legal Analyst
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It was a bit of a surprise when federal agents raided the compound owned by Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick in Surry County, Va., recently and took over an investigation into allegations of dogfighting. Even the local authorities in Surry who've been conducting their own probe were stunned by the federal action. Commonwealth's Attorney Gerald Poindexter said, "I'm amazed, to be quite honest."
The government's action raises questions. Here are some answers . . .
Federal investigators have been scouring Michael Vick's property in rural Virginia looking for evidence of dogfighting. What's going on? And how did the U.S. government become involved?
Using powerful laws that were enacted only a month ago (a bill known as HR 137), agents of the U.S. Department of Agriculture are determining whether Vick and others should be prosecuted for promoting and sponsoring dogfights. The new federal law makes it a felony to organize a dogfight. A subdivision of the agriculture department is pursuing similar cases elsewhere with considerable support from humane societies and local police departments. The Vick investigation is one of many across the U.S.
Vick says he knew nothing about any criminal activity on his property and that he was unaware anyone might have been staging dogfights there. If he knew nothing, what can happen to him?
If it is proved that the fighting took place, it will be difficult for Vick to persuade anyone that he didn't know about it. Federal agents are sifting through evidence gathered on Vick's acreage, going through his phone records call by call, and analyzing his financial accounts. If, for example, they can connect a flurry of calls to a night of dogfighting, or if they find payment for dog food or other canine expenses charged to Vick, he could face a serious legal problem. Even if he can somehow persuade the authorities that he knew nothing about the fighting of dogs on his compound, he might face liability under the tough, new federal law. So far, that new law has been used less than a dozen times; as the courts apply it, more precise definitions of "sponsoring" and "promoting" will develop. Vick and his lawyers will be watching these legal developments very closely. In addition, under Virginia law, Vick can be prosecuted if the authorities can show that he was "aware" of dogfighting.
Is this something Vick should worry about?
Definitely. The local police and the county prosecutor were taking their time in their investigation of Vick and the 66 dogs seized on his property. Poindexter, the Commonwealth's Attorney, refused to execute a search warrant on Vick's property, and that's a rare event in the world of law enforcement. In fact, he actually let the warrant expire, creating the impression that things might be worked out in a friendly settlement with the local authorities. But the day after the county search warrant expired, the USDA agents were on the scene armed with their own search warrant. So instead of reluctant local cops, Vick appears now to be up against the might of the federal government.
What can the federal government do to Vick?
The USDA and other federal agencies will now be sifting through all aspects of his life. The dogfighting investigation easily could grow into examinations of his income, taxes and other holdings. If they find sufficient evidence, the federal agencies will submit it to the U.S. Department of Justice and then, possibly, to a grand jury for indictment.
Is dogfighting a serious crime? If Vick was involved in it, what can happen to him?
Until last month, a federal dogfighting charge was a misdemeanor and likely would result in probation and a fine. Now, though, the recently strengthened federal law provides draconian penalties for people involved in dogfighting. There's a jail term of three years, and there's a fine of $250,000. And if that isn't enough, those penalties are per dog. Remember, the police confiscated 66 dogs in the raid on Vick's property. These laws are the result of powerful lobbying by the Humane Society of the United States and other animal protections groups. Their lobby is as powerful as the gun lobby.
If you breed dogs for fighting, are you in trouble?
Yes, the trouble begins the moment the dogs are thrown into the ring to fight.
Even if he wasn't a part of the suspected dogfighting operation, was Vick involved in breeding the dogs on the property in question?
There was a valid license in effect for a kennel and for the breeding of dogs on Vick's property, but it wasn't in Vick's name. The treasurer of Surry County issued the license to one Tony Taylor at Vick's address on Moonlight Road. Although Vick has said he knew nothing about any dogfighting on his estate, Vick's name and Taylor's name were linked on a web site for "Mike Vick K-9 Kennels" located at an address in Suffolk, Va., which is near Smithfield. The web site, which is currently unavailable, included a statement to the effect that none of the kennel's dogs were used for fighting. Still, Vick could face problems if USDA agents connect Taylor to dogfights and examine the life of the site. Did Vick pay for it? Who originated it? Who ordered it taken down? It could add to Vick's problems.
What about Tony Taylor? What's happened to him?
The answer to those questions could also add to Vick's trouble. After the initial raid in late April, Vick threw Taylor off his property as part of the effort to show that he was not involved in dogfighting. Now, with federal agents snooping around everywhere, what will Taylor do? It's possible that he feels betrayed by Vick. Will he seek to make a deal with the agents in return for testimony about Vick and the dogs? Taylor might be able to escape prosecution by helping in a case against Vick. It's one more thing for Vick to worry about.
Does dogfighting lead to other unsavory activities? Are there other laws that should have Vick worried?
Yes and yes. Humane Society and law enforcement experts agree that although the dogfight might be the centerpiece of the evening, other things generally happen that capture the attention of police and federal agents. There is an admission fee for the event, usually $100 per person. It's paid in cash and can lead to consequences in a federal investigation. Alcohol usually is sold, which means more cash and more trouble. There is heavy gambling on the outcomes of the fights, another violation of criminal laws. And there are often guns and drugs in abundance, leading to still more problems. Undercover agents attending a dogfight barely know where to begin taking notes and making arrests.
Are they doing this just because Vick is a famous quarterback?
No. The USDA and the humane societies are engaged in a major effort to end animal fighting in the U.S. They are interested in people who promote and sponsor dogfights. It might matter to some of the animal-rights lobbyists who can use Vick's celebrity to promote their causes; but legally, Vick's football success is inconsequential. In Dayton, Ohio, for example, the USDA and other federal and state agencies investigated a dogfighting operation for 14 months, seized 64 dogs, and indicted nine people. Last week, state authorities in Ohio charged another 38 who were involved in the same scheme. All 38 are charged with state felonies. Although that investigation began with a dogfighting conspiracy, it quickly led to drug, gun and gambling charges as well. The charges even include bartered purchases of food stamp machines. The payments for the food stamp machines, which produce valuable food stamps for use as cash in retail stores, included a stolen Corvette and wholesale quantities of cocaine.
Is dogfighting illegal everywhere?
Yes. It's a felony in 48 states and a misdemeanor in Wyoming and Idaho. But the new federal law trumps state laws. If you're involved in dogfighting, you now face the prospect of a federal prosecution with agents of the USDA, FBI and IRS coming after you.
What will happen to Vick's house and the black buildings in the backyard where, investigators suspect, dogfighting was carried out?
Now that the federal government is involved, there is a real possibility that the house and the land will be forfeited to the government. If charges are filed against Vick or anyone else, the government will demand that the property be taken from Vick. Vick is in the process of selling the real estate to an unknown buyer, but the sale might not happen if federal charges are filed. In the Ohio case, the federal prosecutors are asking for similar forfeitures.
Vick apparently wasn't living in the house. What will happen to the people who were?
Their situation is just as bad as the dilemma facing Vick. If investigators determine that dogfighting, in fact, was taking place there and Vick is able to convince authorities that he was not involved, then the focus of the probe will turn to those who were training and fighting the dogs found on the property. They will be subject to the same tougher laws that Vick now faces.
ESPN.com's Lester Munson is a Chicago lawyer and journalist who has been reporting on investigative and legal issues in the sports industry for 18 years.
Lots of questions cropped up when the U.S. Agriculture Department began investigating allegations of dogfighting on a property owned by Michael Vick. Lester Munson has answers.