Yes, Animals Can Be Individual Victims of Crime, Says Oregon Supreme Court
Where animal welfare is concerned, Oregon really “gets it.” The state is routinely recognized as one of the most progressive on the issue of protecting our furry and feathered friends. What the Oregon Supreme Court just did, however, is nothing less than a cause for celebration.
It issued not one, but two decisions that recognize animal victims deserve protection, regardless of who owns them or where they are.
Case 1: Animals Qualify Under Oregon Law as Individual Victims
This case, State v. Nix, involved a defendant who’d been convicted of starving 20 goats and horses. The trial court determined that because animals aren’t legal persons under the law, the only “victim” of this crime was the state itself. That meant 20 counts of abuse had to “merge” into only one.
The State of Oregon appealed that adverse decision, winning at the Court of Appeals level in 2012. The Oregon Supreme Court also agreed this month, after the defendant sought relief at that level. Too bad, so sad. If you abused 20 animals, you must answer for 20 counts of animal neglect. That’s as it should be.
In its decision issued on Aug. 7, the Court noted:
In concluding that animals are “victims” for the purposes of ORS 161.067(2), we emphasize that our decision is not one of policy about whether animals are deserving of such treatment under the law. That is a matter for the legislature. Our decision is based on precedent and on a careful evaluation of the legislature’s intentions as expressed in statutory enactments….
In adopting that statute, the legislature regarded those animals as the “victims” of the offense. It necessarily follows that the trial court in this case erred in merging the 20 counts of second-degree animal neglect into a single conviction.
According to the Animal Legal Defense Fund:
Significantly, the Court soundly rejected defendants’ contention that animal protection laws exist solely for human benefit; while animals are property, said the Court, today Oregon has one of the most comprehensive schemes of animal protection that was clearly enacted to protect animal victims, regardless of ownership.
Bravo, Oregon lawmakers. Every abused animal is indeed a victim in its own right. This landmark ruling ensures abusers will face more realistic sentences than the pathetic single-count 90 days the lower court originally imposed.
It also offers real support to prosecutors in other states like Wyoming and Michigan who are looking to reverse legal decisions that did not support animal victims in this way.
Case 2: Cops Need No Warrant to Save Animal’s Life in Emergencies
The second case involved co-defendants who together owned a horse they kept on their property. After neighbors reported that it appeared to be starving, a member of the sheriff’s office with animal training was sent to investigate.
He saw, in plain view from the shared driveway, a painfully thin horse showing all the signs he recognized as indicators of severe starvation. He determined he had a medical emergency on his hands.
Rather than waiting several hours to process a warrant, the officer entered the property and seized the horse. The two defendants were later convicted of first- and second-degree animal neglect. They moved to suppress the evidence gained by the officer’s warrantless entry.
To their credit, at every level, the courts of Oregon found that the officer had acted appropriately and refused to toss the evidence.
When State v. Fessenden/Dicke reached the Oregon Supreme Court, it ruled for the first time in state history that where there is probable cause, the “exigent circumstances” exception to the normal requirement to obtain a warrant can apply to animal cruelty victims, if they face imminent harm.
The Court stopped short of also extending the “emergency aid” exception to this case, as the Court of Appeals had done. That exception would have allowed warrantless entry to save an animal life even without probable cause.
Nevertheless, while Oregon still views animals as property, these decisions represent a giant step forward in their legal status. Certainly, if corporate entities can rely on being considered legal “victims,” sentient beings like animals deserve equivalent consideration, right?
Yes, Oregon really gets it. Now for the rest of the United States. Can you lawmakers match Oregon’s animal welfare achievement? Do you care enough to enact state laws that help animals who are victims of cruel humans? Animal lovers everywhere are watching your actions — and are voting accordingly.
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