Animal Law Update: Oregon Supreme Court Determines Animals Can Be Considered Crime Victims

By Phil Guidry, Senior Policy Analyst, AKC Government Relations

In a recently issued opinion, the Oregon Supreme Court held that animals are the victims of animal cruelty crimes.  While that decision may sound like common sense to most people, the opinion substantiates a considerable amount of thought on the purpose of the state’s animal cruelty laws. BACKGROUND: The case resulted from a tip that led to the discovery of dozens of emaciated horses and goats on the defendant’s farm.  A jury convicted the defendant of 20 counts of second-degree animal neglect.  At the sentencing hearing, the state asked the trial court to impose 20 separate convictions because, they reasoned, the jury found the defendant guilty of neglecting 20 different animals.  However, under Oregon law, courts are permitted to “merge” multiple guilty verdicts stemming from a single criminal episode into a single conviction, unless the criminal episode resulted in two or more victims. The trial court concluded that only people can be “victims” within the meaning of the criminal statute, and as such the defendant had committed only one punishable offense.  The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s sentencing decision, holding that animals can be victims.  The defendant then appealed to the Oregon Supreme Court, arguing that the meaning of the word “victim” includes only people—not animals—and that the victims of animal neglect cases are either the public or the owner of the animal.  The state countered that the ordinary meaning of the word “victim” refers to both animals and humans, and that the text and history of the criminal statute demonstrate the legislature’s intent to protect individual animals from suffering.

The issue confronting the Oregon Supreme Court was limited to whether animals could be considered “victims” for the purposes of sentencing under the animal neglect statute.  If so, then the counts against the defendant would not be able to be merged and he could be sentenced for 20 separate convictions.   (The narrow focus of the issue in question did not impact the legal status of animals as property, which the court explicitly emphasized.) The court’s decision hinged on the technical aspects of statutory construction and history.  In considering the issue, the Oregon Supreme Court first assumed that the state’s legislature intended that the wording of the law be given its ordinary meaning since it found no evidence of a contrary legislative intent.  (This is an often-used method of reasoning employed by courts when trying to figure out a legislature’s intent behind a law.)  In light of this, the court found that the ordinary meaning of the word “victim” was indeed capable of referring either to human beings or animals, or both.

Next, the court focused on whom or what suffered the harm that the underlying animal neglect statute makes criminal.  It found that the phrasing of the statute revealed that the legislature’s focus was indeed the treatment of individual animals, not (as the defendant argued) harm to the public generally or harm to the owners. Further, the court considered the historical focus of the state’s century-old animal cruelty laws, and articulated that the second-degree animal neglect statute was part of a more comprehensive set of offenses concerning insufficient animal care that are structured to address the entire extent of animal suffering.  The court held that for each of these laws, the offense is without a doubt committed against an animal, with the relative seriousness of the offense evaluated in line with the relative degree of harm inflicted upon that animal. In summarizing that animals are the victims in this context, the court reasoned that the defendant’s argument that owners are the victims under the animal abuse statutes could well lead to an inconsistency—that, if the owners themselves had been convicted of negligent treatment of their animals, owners could be both violator and victim in the same case. The opinion, written by Justice Jack L. Landau, limits the court’s decision to the interpretation of the underlying animal negligence statute.  As explicitly reiterated in the opinion, Oregon law continues to regard animals as the property of their owners.