ENVIRONMENT
09/26/2014 11:12 am ET Updated Sep 26, 2014

Oregon Court Says Animals Can Be Crime 'Victims,' Like People. So What Does That Mean?

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Last month, the Oregon Supreme Court issued two rulings widely celebrated as major victories for animal rights, granting animals legal protections formerly reserved for humans.

In State v. Nix, the court held that animals -- namely, 20 goats and horses, found starving among the bodies of others that hadn't made it, on the defendant Arnold Nix's farm -- can each be considered individual "victims" under the law.

In State v. Fessenden, also involving an emaciated horse, the court upheld the warrantless seizure of an animal found to be starving, under an "exigent circumstances" exception to the Fourth Amendment.

These decisions have been cheered by many in the animal welfare community and by law enforcement.

But some, like the Animal Legal Defense Fund and Oregon animal welfare attorney Dane Johnson have pointed out the rulings' limits.

ALDF, for example, expressed disappointment that the court did not go even further and explicitly decide if a broader Fourth Amendment exception -- the "emergency aid exception" -- also applies to animals. This exception, ALDF writes, is "similar to the exigent circumstances exception in that it allows warrantless entry to save life, but does not require probable cause."

Johnson expands on this in his own blog post, taking issue with the decisions' legal limitations as well as their moral boundaries:

Why, for example, do we consider the recognition that individual animals are as much victims of inflicted suffering as human crime victims significant when we kill billions of sentient animals in violent and painful ways every year unnecessarily for food?

The Huffington Post recently caught up with Johnson by email to find out more:

Can you tell us about State v. Nix, and what's important about the ruling?

State v. Nix is a criminal case involving what the Oregon Court of Appeals described as “dozens of emaciated animals, mostly horses and goats, and several animal carcasses in various states of decay.”

A jury convicted the defendant of 20 counts of second-degree animal neglect. At the defendant's sentencing hearing, the state asked the trial court to impose 20 separate convictions because the jury had found the defendant guilty of neglecting 20 different animals. But the trial court “merged” the guilty verdicts into a single conviction, then sentenced the defendant to 90 days in jail and three years of probation.

The Oregon Court of Appeals reversed that decision. Oregon’s lower appellate court ordered the entry of separate convictions on each guilty verdict for a violation of ORS 167.325 and resentencing. The defendant appealed to the Oregon Supreme Court, which affirmed the Court of Appeals.

Presumably, the defendant will now receive a stricter sentence.

What does it mean to say that animals can now be considered "victims" under the law? How does this change things?

The Nix case clarifies that under existing Oregon animal cruelty laws, criminal neglect of multiple animals cannot be grouped together into a single charge. It treats animals as individual “victims” for purposes of sentencing.

Under Oregon law, when a defendant is found guilty of committing multiple crimes during a single criminal episode, those guilty verdicts "merge" into a single conviction, unless they are subject to one of a series of exceptions.

One of those exceptions provides that when the same conduct involves two or more “victims,” there are as many separately punishable offenses as there are victims. The defendant in Nix argued that because animals are not “victims” as the law defines that term, only one conviction for multiple counts of animal neglect was allowed.

The Oregon Supreme Court found nothing in the statutes limiting the meaning of the word "victim" to human beings. It determined that a “victim” was instead the subject of whatever protection is provided by the underlying law being violated.

The court rejected the defendant's view that the victim of an animal neglect case is either the public at large or the owner of the animal. The court reviewed the development of animal cruelty law in the United States and Oregon. It explained that while “early animal cruelty legislation may have been directed at protecting animals as property of their owners or as a means of promoting public morality, Oregon's animal cruelty laws have been rooted -- for nearly a century -- in a different legislative tradition of protecting individual animals themselves from suffering.”

Animals are ordinarily considered to be property under the law. Does this opinion mean that, legally speaking, animals are no longer mere property?

The Nix case does not change the fact that animals are considered to be property under Oregon law. In fact, in its opinion, the Oregon Supreme Court expressly acknowledged that “Oregon law regards animals as the property of their owners.”

The court emphasized that its opinion in Nix was not a policy statement about whether animals generally “deserve” to be treated as victims. It explained that the Nix decision “is based on precedent and on a careful evaluation of the legislature's intentions as expressed in statutory enactments.”

The court found that these intentions were to protect the individual animal’s interest in not being treated with criminal neglect and cruelty, not just to protect the owner’s economic interest in the animals.

This case comes on the heels of another Oregon Supreme Court case finding that police can execute warrantless searches when they believe an animal is in imminent danger. Can you tell me why that case is important?

In its recent opinion in State v. Fessenden, the Oregon Supreme Court upheld the warrantless seizure of a horse in critical condition that led to a successful criminal prosecution for animal abuse and neglect.

The court upheld the seizure as valid under both the Fourth Amendment and the Oregon constitution, which makes warrantless entries and searches unreasonable unless one of a few narrow exceptions applies. One is the "exigent circumstances" exception, which applies to situations in which police must act swiftly to prevent danger to life or serious damage to property.

Since animal neglect is a crime, animals are considered property under Oregon law, and the horse would probably have died before a warrant could be obtained, the court found the circumstances sufficiently “exigent” to justify the warrantless seizure.

Unfortunately, the court in Fessenden did not go further and consider whether an officer could seize an animal without a warrant under the broader "emergency aid" exception.

These two cases, individually and together, seem to show a major shift away from how animals are usually treated under the law: as mere property. Is that right, do you think?

The Nix and Fessenden cases apply existing Oregon law without narrowing it to be even less protective of animals, so in that sense they are helpful to animals. The opinions may also hopefully persuade courts in other states that have held that animals cannot qualify as victims for sentencing purposes.

Unfortunately, however, I don’t think that these two cases represent any major shift away from a view of animals as property. As the court in Nix explained, “Oregon's animal cruelty laws have been rooted -- for nearly a century -- in a ... legislative tradition of protecting individual animals themselves from suffering.”

This tradition has stood along one that regards animals as property. The court cautiously avoided giving any opinion that animals “deserve” to be treated as victims.

As sentient beings, however, animals have interests that are incompatible with their being treated as mere property. Animals therefore inherently “deserve” to be treated other than as human resources.

But individual animals by the billions continue to be subjected to horrible suffering and death, mostly in industrial agriculture. This exploitation is not considered criminal animal abuse or neglect.

Do you think animals in Oregon have enough legal protections now? How about outside Oregon?

Because animals are generally treated as property under the law, they have few legal protections in Oregon or in other states, and the protections that do exist generally require only that property owners provide the minimal level of care needed to accomplish the owner’s particular human purpose.

Animal interests for legal purposes are usually restricted to not being deprived of the minimal care required to provide an economic benefit to their owners.

You work as an animal welfare lawyer. What do you see as the parts of the law that haven't yet caught up with how society now thinks of animals?

Society displays profound moral confusion when it comes to animals. The law reflects this confusion despite the fact that it is becoming increasingly clear that nonhuman animals share with us characteristics of sentient beings. Some of these characteristics are being perceptually aware, feeling pain, caring for their offspring and desiring to continue to live.

In other words, society seems to understand that all animals are sentient, but it allows the horrific exploitation of most of them, mainly in industrial agriculture. At the same time, it protects against the neglect and abuse of some of them, such as dogs, cats and the horses and goats involved in the Nix case.

There is no legitimate justification for this different treatment because there is no morally significant difference between the horses and goats in the Nix case and the animals exploited for human purposes, including billions of farmed animals.

Attorney Steven Wise, who brought the personhood suits on behalf of captive chimpanzees in New York, argued in The Oregonian that these recent decisions are a step toward legal personhood for animals. Do you think that's correct?

The Nix and Fessenden decisions indicate the Oregon Supreme Court’s awareness that, as Professor Wise quoted in his editorial, “the day may come when humans perceive less separation between themselves and other living beings than the law now reflects.”

Although the court acknowledged the current legal status of animals as property, it recognized that individual animals have interests that are incompatible with being classified as property. Hopefully, other courts and lawmakers will also recognize these interests.

You have a statement on your professional website encouraging people to go vegan. Why is that, and how does that statement fit into your practice?

Because animals are sentient, we have a moral obligation not to view and treat them as human resources. The most important thing that we can do to stop exploiting animals is to go vegan.

This interview has been lightly edited for length.

Do you have some professional insight into the animal/human bond? Have another animal story to share? Get in touch with The Huffington Post's animal welfare editor at arin.greenwood@huffingtonpost.com!

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