Todd McRae with his service dog, Belle. (Dave Boyd/ Johnson City Press)
In 2013, Tennessee law changed the criteria for service animals and questions their handlers can be asked when entering a place that accommodates the public.
Court staff at the Justice Center was apparently unaware of those changes when officers asked Todd McRae for documentation showing his dog, Belle, is in fact a service animal.
The situation turned into a bit of a confrontation, with McRae’s version of the incident and the sheriff’s office’s version differing somewhat.
Regardless of the details, both parties now agree the officers were wrong in asking McRae for documentation.
“They’re only allowed to ask two things,” McRae said. “‘Is it a service dog?’ and ‘How does the dog help you with your disability?’ The only requirement of me is that my dog behave appropriately in public and that it’s potty trained.”
McRae said he was actually allowed into the building initially, but was confronted during the court break when he was headed outside to smoke.
“They made me stand there for a half hour. I was in the foyer ... I wasn’t allowed to go inside,” he said.
McRae said he did finally produce his dog’s certification documents, but only because he was afraid he’d be late for his court hearing.
Deputies working at the courthouse entrance called for their supervisor, Capt. Larry Denny, to further handle the situation.
Denny denies McRae was kept from entering the courthouse.
“He wasn’t denied entry. He took his dog into the courtroom. All we did was we asked him for documentation to show it was actually a service dog,” Denny said.
The captain acknowledged he and his officers were unaware of the law change regarding the request for paperwork. Everyone with the department now has a copy of the changes and is completely aware of the what he law allows, he added.
Maj. Russell Jamerson said the law is very specific about what can be asked of a person with a service animal before being allowed into a public facility.
“Basically we are allowed to ask if the animal is required because of a disability and we can ask what task the animal has been trained to perform,” Jamerson said. “As long as the service animal doesn’t cause any disruptions, and it has to be housebroken, if they say it’s a service animal, it’s coming in.”
Denny said there was another person with a service dog at the courthouse at the same time as McRae.
“She walked in and handed the officer her documentation and went in,” he said. “Because we asked (McRae) the question, he got quite ill about it, (but) we allowed him in the building, we allowed him in the courtroom.”
Following the incident, Jamerson called to apologize to McRae.
“They ended up calling me back apologizing to me for (the) officers’ actions,” McRae said. “I accepted it.”
McRae said what he wants to see come of this now is more education about the service animal law.
“If it was Walmart it wouldn’t bother me so bad,” he noted. “I’m upset because it happened at (a public building).”