Court considers animals "victims"

A ruling by the Oregon Court of Appeals has opened the door for animals to be considered victims of crime, according to the East Oregonian.

The ruling came down Aug. 1, 2012 in a neglect case that resulted in 20 counts of second-degree animal abuse.

The ruling, a rare one in the legal system, implies that animals are more than just property; rather, that they may be sentient beings.

In 2009, officials found "dozens of emaciated animals, mostly horses and goats, and several animal carcasses in various states of decay" at the farm of a 68-year-old man.

A jury convicted the man in March 2010, but a circuit court judge merged the 20 counts into a single conviction.

The state pushed the case to the appeals court to overturn the decision. The appeals court in its determined that the lower court erred in the merging of the 20 counts.

Scott Heiser of the Animal Legal Defense Fund told the East Oregonian that its rare for the law to allow animals to be victims. Most laws, including those in Oregon, say people can be victims, as well as other entities, such as corporations, while animals are usually defined as property.

If the man had rented space to house horses and harmed those animals, then every horse owner would be a victim, Heiser said. The man, though, owned all the horses. The appeals court had to question if animals neglected by their owners qualify as victims.

In its 15 page ruling, the court said it sought to understand the legislatures intent regarding language in the laws of animal neglect and determining multiple victims.

"In short," the court said, "based on the text and context of ORS 167.325 (second-degree animal neglect), it appears that the legislatures primary concern was to protect individual animals as sentient beings, rather than to vindicate a more generalized public interest in their welfare."

Thus, the court concluded, each animal identified in each count for which the man was found guilty qualified as a separate victim for purposes of sentencing, and the circuit court judge should not have merged the counts.
Read more from the East Oregonian.

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