DETROIT (Detroit Free Press) - As of this month, dogfighting and cockfighting in Michigan can be prosecuted as a criminal enterprise, much like large drug and prostitution operations, with penalties of up to 20 years in prison and fines of $100,000.
The new law is part of a crackdown on blood sports by the Legislature. Gov. Rick Snyder signed the bill and two others into law on Dec. 12.
Sen. Bert Johnson, D-Highland Park and a sponsor of two of the bills, said the new laws are the toughest in the country.
Vicki Deisner of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) said the package sets a national standard.
"Michigan is out ahead on this one," said Deisner, ASPCA's state director for the Midwest.
The new laws also allow police to seize homes and vehicles associated with animal fighting; shut down any venue associated with animal fighting and declare it a nuisance; and add animal fighting, shooting and baiting to the list of racketeering crimes.
Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge and another sponsor of the legislation, said the bills send the message that "Michigan is not a good place to bring dogfighting: 20 years in prison, $100,000 fine, lose your house, your barn, your property, cars, anything involved with this crime.
"It's sweeping legislation that has been noticed nationwide as a real example of getting tough on a terrible blood sport, where you have dogs torn apart for gambling and profit."
Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon said it is a "welcome punishment for those who are caught ... if you're going to profit from this, we're going to take your profit from you."
Hotbeds of fighting
According to the ASPCA, dogfighting is widespread in parts of Michigan, with Detroit, Flint and Kalamazoo national hotbeds.
Animal fighting so far has been a felony punishable by up to four years in prison and a maximum $50,000 fine.
Most violators pay minimum fines of $1,000 to $5,000, said Raj Prasad, a Wayne County assistant prosecutor who co-founded the office's animal protection unit, which handles all animal-related cases. Some also get jail or prison time.
The new penalties do not replace current law, just expand the charges that county prosecutors can bring.
Experts say dogfighting is a lucrative business, with tens of thousands of dollars changing hands based on the outcome of a single match. Nationwide, ASPCA called it a multimillion-dollar enterprise that leads to the cruel treatment and deaths of thousands of dogs. Because it is a clandestine activity, ASPCA said it is impossible to know how many people are involved.
Dogfights also draw other illegal activity.
"They're hotbeds of criminal activity beyond the fighting -- gambling, narcotics, guns," Prasad said.
He said dangerous weapons and contraband have been found in almost every animal-fighting case that Wayne County has prosecuted.
Some of these fight organizers, breeders and dog trainers have been involved in illegal activity for years, even decades, he said.
Prasad said the new law will allow prosecutors to go after these criminal enterprises in the same way they charge large drug operations.
"It enables us to go after the more long-term breeders and fighters," Prasad said. "These laws are designed to go after the bigger operations that have a lot more invested in dogfighting, cockfighting."
Prasad said fighting dogs are bred and trained to be vicious and strong. Weaker dogs in a litter may be killed.
Some trainers may give their dogs steroids, and train them with weights or treadmills to build muscle mass. They may get the dog's blood-thirst up by baiting it with a weaker animal.
Complaints on rise
The number of dogfighting complaints to the Michigan Humane Society, which investigates animal abuse in Detroit, Highland Park and Hamtramck, is on pace to top last year's totals, said spokesman Kevin Hatman.
The society received 112 complaints during the first nine months of 2012, compared with 113 for all of 2011. Complaints may range from two strays fighting in an alley to a ring.
Hatman said dogfighting is "far more common than we would like."
Just last week, Oakland County sheriff's deputies raided a home in Pontiac and arrested a 38-year-old man on suspicion of dogfighting and animal cruelty. They said they found four dogs on heavy chains and five dogs in cages in the basement, as well as treadmills and other evidence the dogs were being trained to fight.
According to the Oakland County Sheriff's Office, some of the dogs appeared to be malnourished.
There have been other arrests. This summer, the Humane Society of the United States helped Kalamazoo County officials raid two suspected dogfighting operations. Two alleged dogfighters were arrested, and 46 dogs were seized.
In Flint, half a dozen rings were busted in 2011. One of those charged with several counts of dogfighting and animal torture was a 14-year-old, said Genesee County Prosecutor David Leyton. The teen was "the youngest person ... that I've ever had to charge with dogfighting."
And this summer, prompted by an online video, Detroit police and Michigan Humane Society investigators raided a home where they seized dogs, pigeons, rabbits and chickens.
The video shows a man, identified by others as rapper Young Calicoe, giving a tour in which he points out caged birds and dogs.
He refers to a famous dogfighting case:
"Anybody want to fight some dogs?" Young Calicoe asks. "I hope we don't get indicted for that ... that Michael Vick-type (expletive).
He points to some birds: "We got some more fighters over here, making that real money."
Of some dogs, he says: "They champions in the making, man."
Young Calicoe, also known as Toranio Hightower, has been charged with dogfighting; he will be back in Wayne County court in January for the continuation of his preliminary exam.
For Sen. Johnson, putting dogfighters out of business got personal last year.
Johnson was blowing snow at a home in Highland Park when he turned to see a menacing pit bull in the driveway. He tried to maneuver around the snowblower, lost his footing, and his hand ended up in the snowblower's shoot. Doctors were able to save two severed fingers.
Johnson said he could see scars on the dog's muzzle.
"I knew he was a fighting dog," Johnson said.
Contact Jennifer Dixon: 313-223-4410 or firstname.lastname@example.org