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Great News in Oregon: Each Animal Counts!

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Great News in Oregon: Each Animal Counts!

By Scott Heiser, Director of Animal League Defense Fund (ALDF) Criminal Justice Program
August 2012

This is a very good opinion for animals—recognizing their sentiency as a compelling interest over and above the general public interest associated with crimes related to “keeping the peace.” In Oregon, this opinion will ensure that those offenders who harm multiple animals will be exposed to separate and distinct punishment for each victim animal who suffered under the offender’s charge.

In a mass animal neglect case in which ALDF filed an amicus brief in support of the state’s appeal, we just got a fantastic result from the Oregon Court of Appeals. The case is State v. Nix and the facts are simple. In 2008-2009 the defendant neglected many horses in Umatilla County. In March of 2010 the defendant was tried on multiple charges of animal neglect (each count alleging the same timeframe and thus the conduct was treated as one criminal episode).

The jury convicted the defendant of 20 separate counts of animal neglect involving 20 individual horses. At sentencing, the trial court adopted the defendant’s argument that animals are not legal persons and as such they cannot be considered “victims.” Thus, under Oregon law, the argument goes, the state is the only victim, which means that the defendant can only be punished for one count of animal neglect (the remaining 19 counts must all “merge” into the first count). The practical results from the trial court’s ruling include: the defendant only has to pay one fine rather than 20; the defendant can only serve one jail term rather than multiple, consecutive terms; and with just one conviction on the books, the defendant would be eligible to wipe his criminal record clean (a process called expungement).

The State of Oregon appealed this ruling and asked ALDF to consider filing a brief as well—we were delighted to do so. In an opinion issued on August 1, 2012, the Oregon Court of Appeals reversed the trial court, adopting some key arguments we made in support of the state’s case, e.g.: (1) a significant component in the test to determine a “victim” is to evaluate the substantive statute and identify the person or being who suffered the harm that is at the core of the underlying crime; (2) Oregon’s post-verdict forfeiture and lien laws evidence a legislative intent to treat animals as something other than mere property of a human, and there is a broader public interest in their health, care, and well-being—holding that “In short, based on the text and context of ORS 167.325 [the animal neglect statute at issue], it appears that the legislature’s primary concern was to protect individual animals as sentient beings, rather than to vindicate the more generalized public interests in their welfare”; and (3) to adopt the defendant’s rationale would produce rather inconsistent results (e.g., cases of mass neglect where each animal was the property of a different owner would produce more punishable crimes than if, as was the circumstance in the Nix case, all of the animals were owned by the same person).

This is a very good opinion for animals—recognizing their sentiency as a compelling interest over and above the general public interest associated with crimes related to “keeping the peace.” In Oregon, this opinion will ensure that those offenders who harm multiple animals will be exposed to separate and distinct punishment for each victim animal who suffered under the offender’s charge. Further, it will help prosecutors reverse adverse rulings in states like Michigan [People v. Kruithoff, 242739, 2003 WL 22961698 (Mich. Ct. App. 2003) (a dog is legally an animal and not a person and it cannot qualify as a victim within the meaning of the legislative sentencing guidelines)] and Wyoming [Amrein v. State, 836 P.2d 862 (Wyo. 1992) (ruling that the trial court violated defendant’s double jeopardy rights in convicting him of separate counts for neglect of nine animals; Wyoming Supreme Court found that the failure to feed all animals gave rise to only one cruelty count and noted that “[a]s a general proposition, with few exceptions, in crimes against the person, when contrasted with crimes against property, there are as many offenses as individuals affected”)].