V.I. AG's office reviewing federal cockfighting law

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ST. THOMAS - The rules on cockfighting have changed in the United States, and V.I. officials are seeking clarification on what effect the changes to federal law will have on the lack of any laws in the Virgin Islands that prohibit cockfighting.

The only law pertaining to cockfighting in the V.I. Code pertains to taxing it as an entertainment when admission is charged, which up until now has implicitly made it legal in the territory.

Earlier this month, President Barack Obama signed the 2014 Farm Bill, also known as the Agricultural Act of 2014. As of last week, a provision in the bill makes it a federal crime to attend an animal fight, including a cockfight, and a separate crime to bring a child under the age of 16 to an animal fight.

The former could be punishable by up to one year in prison and a $100,000 fine, and the latter by up to three years and a $250,00 fine. During a cockfight, roosters are placed in pen and left to fight each other until one of the two dies. By themselves, their fighting generally is not enough to be fatal, so those who own the roosters often place razor blades on the legs of the animals, according to the website of the Humane Society of the United States.

Though most states in the nation outlawed the practice years ago, several of the country's territories, including the Virgin Islands, maintain laws that allow cockfights to take place.

Under the V.I. Code, cockfighting is considered entertainment - along with circuses, horse races, theatrical performances, boxing matches and concerts - that is taxable when an admission is charged to attend.

The law states: "A tax at the rate of five percent on gross receipts shall be levied on all performances, or entertainments, not including dances, but including cock-fights, horse races, theatrical performances, motion picture shows, boxing matches, circuses and concerts where admission is charged or where admission is available to contributors, or where or for which contributions are solicited; provided, however, that this tax shall not apply in the case of any event held by or sponsored by any officially recognized religious, charitable, benevolent-civic, educational or other organization when not engaged in the conduct of business for profit."

Whether the new farm bill provision makes any exceptions for the rules of the V.I. Code has yet to be seen. If not, federal law typically "trumps" territorial law, according to V.I. Attorney General Vincent Frazer.

"We are in the process of reviewing the bill," Frazer said. "There may be some leverage in the Farm Bill that would provide some exceptions."

The Attorney General's Office has been reviewing the bill since it received a letter from Sen. Alicia Hansen of St. Croix earlier this week, Frazer said.

"The federal laws and our territorial laws do not align, and so our people are rightfully concerned about whether they can participate in this activity that has been a part of the Virgin Islands culture and tradition for many, many years," Hansen said in a prepared statement.

Hansen also wrote to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, asking that he too address the discrepancy.

The U.S. Attorney's Office in the Virgin Islands had no comment as to whether or not it would seek to prosecute offenders of the federal crime, office spokeswoman Joycelyn Hewlett said.

"As a rule, we do not issue advisory opinions in attempts to interpret criminal statutes," Hewlett said. The U.S. Attorney's Office likely would address any reports on a case-by-case basis, she said.

- Contact Jenny Kane at 714-9102 or email jkane@dailynews.vi.

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