Two recent Oregon Supreme Court rulings have afforded animals further protections, despite their classification as property under Oregon law. These rulings will allow law enforcement to provide more meaningful aid to animal victims and will allow the court system to levy stricter penalties for those found guilty of animal abuse or neglect. Together they strengthen the intervention and prosecution of animal crimes.
In State v. Arnold Nix, the Oregon Supreme Court held that animals could be victims – thus, rather than considering the starvation of twenty horses and goats into one count of second-degree animal neglect, the perpetrator would be charged with one count for each individual animal victim, or twenty counts of neglect. Naturally, allowing for the accused to be charged with twenty counts, as opposed to one, could result in significantly larger and longer punishments. Furthermore, inherent in this decision is the fact that “victim status” is afforded to more than just companion animals, as the animals in the case were horses and goats.
The Oregon Supreme Court considered several factors in their decision. First, they looked at ordinary meaning of the word “victim,” by looking at the definition found in Webster’s Third New International Dictionary. Immediately, it is clear that in order to exclude animals from the meaning of “victim” would be to apply a narrow and selective reading of the definition. The Court then looked at use of the word “victim” to describe animals in books and news articles, to exemplify common usage. The court then looked at whether the statute at issue, Oregon’s “anti-merger” statute, has any language that suggests that the meaning of “victim” could be other than the ordinary meaning. This consideration only helped the case, as the statute appears to suggest that the meaning of victim could change depending on what substantive statute the defendant violated – thus, a violation of an animal neglect statute would suggest an animal victim. The court went on to look at the legislative history and other factors, but nothing aided the defendant’s argument against the inclusion of animal as a possible “victim.” Even though animals are considered the property of their owners, the owners are not the victims of neglect.
On the same day, in State v. Linda Fessenden and Teresa Dicke, the Oregon Supreme Court held that a sheriff’s deputy was justified in entering private property to aid a malnourished horse, who was in immediate danger, rather than wait for a warrant. The deputy “had probable cause to believe that defendants were committing the crime of animal neglect and reasonably believed…that immediate action was necessary to prevent further imminent harm to and the death of the horse.” Again, the facts of this case require that this holding reach further than traditional companion animals, i.e. dogs or cats. See a previous post on this blog for more details on this ruling.
Thus, in just one day, law enforcement and the courts are now able to better remove animals, beyond just companion animals, from dangerous situations and convict perpetrators of animal crimes in the state of Oregon. These decisions were both made, despite the fact that animals are still recognized as property in Oregon – sentient property. Animal Legal Defense Fund stated that Nix “stands as a pillar for those who demand that our justice system recognizes animals as more than mere property.”
As our animal cruelty jurisprudence grows and evolves, reflecting changes in societal values, sentences, for the most part, are also becoming larger and longer. And with that, some are concerned that these might grow to be too strict for what is appropriate for our society. For example, the young man in New York who kicked a cat, and published a video of the cruelty on the internet, is facing possible jail time, which some say is too harsh. They note the long-term effects that this might have on the young man, compromising his future – yet, these arguments would sound ridiculous when if they were made against jail time, and a misdemeanor on a record, for a crime against another living being – humans. More applicable to the Nix holding, four teens in California were arrested for slaughtering 920 chickens at an agricultural facility with a golf club and another object. Under the Nix holding, if chickens, owned as an agricultural commodity, were considered animals, these teens could face 920 counts of animal cruelty (however, this is also ignoring the fact that agricultural animals would not be protected under these statutes). So, ignoring the obvious problems with this example, these teens, if convicted, could face enormous jail time. Again, an extreme and probably inapplicable example, but this holding could aggravate the growing concerns that animal cruelty sentences are too great. Or perhaps with the growing recognition of the sentient qualities of animals and their intrinsic value, beyond market price, this lengthening punishment is just right, and long overdue.