Animals can be considered crime victims under Oregon law, according to the state Supreme Court.
The court justices ruled that police can enter private property to aid an animal during an emergency, even in the absence of a warrant.
In the former ruling, six presiding justices confirmed an appellate court’s decision that a circuit court judge had erred in finding that only humans can be considered victims. The ruling was unanimous, although a seventh Oregon Supreme Court justice, David V. Brewer, did not consider the case.
In March 2010, a jury convicted Arnold W. Nix on 20 counts of second-degree animal neglect. Police had found dozens of emaciated horses, goats, and other animals on his farm a year earlier.
The trial court judge merged the counts into a conviction on a single charge and issued a suspended 90-day jail sentence and three years of probation. Prosecutors appealed.
The Oregon Supreme Court ruling in that case notes that, according to Oregon law, multiple crimes committed in a single episode will merge, with a conviction. But some crimes that harm multiple victims are exempt under an “anti-merger” statute.
Nix’s defense argued that animals are treated as property under Oregon law, which does not allow property to be seen as a crime victim. Instead, the public or the owner would be the victim.
The state argued that the term “victim” drew meaning from the law violated, and the legislature passed the law out of concern that animals could be victims of abuse and neglect.
The ruling, delivered by Justice Jack L. Landau, states that the term “victim” has historically applied to animals, and nothing precludes them from being considered such under state law. Definitions of animal neglect and abuse under state law indicate the legislature focused on treatment of animals rather than harm to the public or animal owners.
In a separate, also unanimous ruling delivered the same day, the justices confirmed an appellate court ruling that a police officer was justified in entering private property to seize an emaciated horse and take that horse to a veterinarian, even though the officer did not have a warrant.
Neighbors of Teresa A. Dicke called police in August 2010 about a horse that appeared to be starving. Dicke and Linda D. Fessenden shared ownership of the horse.
An animal control unit officer with the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office saw from a driveway shared among the neighbors, including Dicke, that the horse appeared to be emaciated, according to court documents. It also swayed and appeared to strain while urinating, the latter recognized by the officer as a possible sign of kidney failure.
“The officer believed that, if the horse were to fall, she was at risk of serious imminent injury or death; he also believed that it would take at least four, and possibly as long as eight, hours to obtain a warrant to seize the horse and take her to a veterinarian,” the ruling states. “The officer’s beliefs were objectively reasonable in light of the officer’s training and expertise as an animal welfare officer.”
A veterinarian at an animal hospital determined the horse needed immediate care, and it gained about 100 pounds over the next month of rehabilitation, according to the appellate court ruling.
Dicke was convicted of first-degree animal neglect and first-degree animal abuse, and Fessenden of second-degree animal neglect.