OMAHA, Neb. (KMTV) — Many walk by on all fours without drawing attention, joining their partners at local restaurants and stores.
But to the people who need them, these service animals are much more than pets.
Dogs like Bear help people like Sarpy County resident Valerie Powell cope with disabilities. Her disabilites affect her balance and reactions to stress. He’s trained to redirect her attention his way as needed.
Powell, like many people with service animals, prefers Bear to blend in. She doesn’t put him in an identifying collar or vest. But he’s always by her side.
“If I go to physical therapy, which I have once or twice a week, he’s there,” she said. “If I have a dentist appointment, he’s there. If I go to the doctor, he’s there. Today we spent two hours at the hair salon.”
The right to bring service animals almost anywhere is protected in state and federal law, including the Americans with Disabilities Act. That doesn’t stop some businesses from trying to turn them away.
Bear, Powell and her fiancé were turned away by a local business on May 23. They were headed to a birthday party at Surfside Club, and bar owner Mike Walker said no, authorities said.
Powell shared cell phone video from that day with 3 News Now Investigators as she pressed the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office and Omaha City Attorney’s Office to treat the matter seriously.
Since she began calling, sheriff’s investigators have cited Walker with interfering with a service animal, a misdemeanor that carries a potential penalty of up to three months in jail and up to a $500 fine.
Interim City Attorney Matt Kuhse says he plans to charge Walker with either interference with a service animal or a similar misdemeanor that alleges he denied entry to a disabled person.
He’s headed to Douglas County Court on Wednesday, according to his ticket.
Walker says he has learned his lesson, that he regrets turning them away. He says his bar, north of Omaha along the Missouri River, allows service dogs now. He calls the video misleading.
He had no answer for why Yelp reviews of his bar showed a previous incident involving a service animal. 3 News Now examined Surfside’s 911 records and found no pattern of calls involving service animals.
Creighton University Law School professor Kelly Dineen said bars have little choice under the law. Bars and restaurants are in a category of businesses open to the public covered by the law, she says.
"They actually do, except in a narrow set of circumstances, do need to accommodate people with service animals, even if in fact they have a no pets policy generally,” Dineen said.
Dineen says she feels some sympathy for business owners, including Walker, after watching the video. The ADA and similar laws protecting the disabled are among the least understood.
You can only ask patrons with a service animal two questions under the law: 'Is the animal required because of a disability?' and 'What work or task has the animal been trained to perform?'
The video shows Walker confront Powell and her fiancé about the dog and tell them Bear can’t come onto the property. He says they need to have papers and a service collar, which they don’t.
Dineen says she wished Walker had taken a second to read the information, asked the two questions and approached the situation “from a position of humility.”
Powell told 3 News Now she was embarrassed, humiliated and scared.
“He could’ve provoked Bear,” Powell said. “What if Bear had bitten him? Would I have been in trouble because he put hands on me? … It bothered me so much I could not sleep all night."
Walker declined to go on camera, citing his lawyer’s advice. He told 3 News Now in a brief telephone interview that he did what he thought was legal.
“I just did what the sheriff said I could do,” he said.
Chief Deputy Douglas County Sheriff Wayne Hudson disagreed, saying the deputies in their reports said Walker felt he could restrict who he wanted coming into his business.
“That is true, under certain circumstances,” Hudson said. “In this situation, he cannot.”
Kuhse, whose office prosecutes misdemeanors in all of Douglas County, not just the city, says the law on service dogs is clear. People with legitimate conditions can’t be denied entry.
Powell says Walker might not have been cited at all if she had not pressed the sheriff’s office after the incident. The deputies at Surfside, also on video, incorrectly described the issue as a civil matter.
Deputies told her at the time they’d note the incident in their logs but not issue a formal sheriff’s report. She says she spent days calling until she got referred to an internal affairs investigator and Hudson.
We asked Hudson if he thought the deputies knew the law well enough at the time to decide whether a citation should be issued. He said they probably needed more info and could’ve done more research.
Hudson said they did the right thing when unsure. They filled out reports and sent them to detectives.
Walker described the video clips from Powell’s fiancé selective in what they showed. But he had not seen it. Neither had the sheriff or the city prosecutor until 3 News Now started asking questions.
Hudson said his investigators hadn’t asked to see the video because they had all the info they needed. Kuhse said his prosecutor hadn’t asked because the office felt they had enough to prove their case.
Powell asked us to share the video with Kuhse because she says she wants prosecutors to examine the physical contact she alleges Walker made with her, which Walker denies.
Hudson says he’s only encountered a few cases involving service dogs in 26 years on the force. He says he will pull together a packet of information for supervisors so they can remind deputies about state law.
“You’re going to see these dogs more and more in establishments,” he said. "If you have a business that you allow the public in, you need to read up on this and understand the dos and don’ts,” Powell says she doesn’t want money and won’t sue Walker or his business. But she says she wants him held accountable.
“He had his rules,” she said. “And he said anybody just wants to bring their cute little animal in here. And at that point, I wanted to cry, but … but I wasn’t going to let him see me cry.”