SALEM, Oregon––The Oregon Supreme Court has in a 15-page verdict vacated its own mid-2014 ruling that Oregon courts may consider animals to be crime victims when sentencing persons convicted of neglect and abuse.
The Oregon Supreme Court decision, published on March 5, 2015, leaves intact for the time being another 2014 verdict which allows law enforcement officers to enter private property without a warrant if an animal is in imminent jeopardy of death from neglect or abuse.
Both 2014 rulings were heralded as advances toward elevating the legal status of animals from that of insentient property.
“The new ruling stems from State v. Arnold Nix,” explained Phil Wright of the Pendleton East Oregonian. “The Umatilla County Sheriff’s Office in 2009 seized 69 farm animals from Nix’s farm,” in Stanfield, Oregon. “A jury in 2010 found Nix guilty of 20 counts of second-degree animal neglect, which were misdemeanors at the time,” Wright continued. “The state asked for sentence on 20 separate convictions, making each animal a victim. But the defense argued livestock were not victims.”
Accepting the defense argument, then-Umatilla County Circuit Judge Jeffrey Wallace sentenced Nix for only a single violation of the law.
No appeal allowed of misdemeanor sentencing
The Oregon Department of Justice appealed the sentencing decision, holding that Nix should have been sentenced for multiple violations. In 2012 the Oregon Court of Appeals agreed. The Oregon Supreme Court affirmed the appellate verdict on August 25, 2014.
But Oregon state law at the time Nix was originally charged did not permit appeals of misdemeanor sentencing. Therefore, the Oregon Supreme Court held on March 5, 2015, “In this case, the appellate courts never had appellate jurisdiction; the state lacked authority to appeal defendant’s judgment of conviction for a misdemeanor. Although neither the state nor defendant raised the issue of jurisdiction until after both the Court of Appeals and this court issued their opinions, the fact remains that neither court possessed authority to issue an opinion.”
Therefore, the Oregon Supreme Court has now abandoned both the 2012 Oregon Court of Appeals ruling and the Oregon Supreme Court’s own 2014 ruling upholding it, and has dismissed the Oregon Department of Justice’s appeal due to lack of jurisdiction.
Law was changed
While Nix thus escapes from his conviction relatively lightly, the Nix case encouraged the legislature to change introduce a felony penalty for neglecting animals, if at least 11 animals are involved.
After the Oregon Supreme Court issued the original August 25, 2014 affirmation of the Oregon Court of Appeals ruling in the Nix case, Aimee Green of the Portland Oregonian described it as holding that “Animals––whether they be horses, goats, dogs or cats––shall be afforded some of the same basic protections as human beings.”
In the case pertaining to search warrants, State vs. Linda Fessenden and Teresa Dicke, the Oregon Supreme Court ruled earlier in August 2014 that a sheriff’s deputy who thought an allegedly neglected horse was in immediate danger of death did not need a warrant to enter private property to rescue the horse.
Defendants Nix, Fessenden, and Dicke all contended that their convictions were invalid because animals are property. Nix held that animals cannot be considered “victims” because they are not human;
Fessenden and Dicke argued that because animals are property, police should have to obtain a warrant before entering private premises to inspect and remove them.
Wrote Oregon Supreme Court Justice Jack Landau in the Nix verdict that has now been vacated, “In concluding that animals are ‘victims,’ we emphasize that our decision is not one of policy about whether animals are deserving of such treatment under the law. That is a matter for the legislature. Our decision is based on precedent and on a careful evaluation of the legislature’s intentions…In this case, the underlying substantive criminal statute protects individual animals from suffering from neglect. In adopting that statute, the legislature regarded those animals as the ‘victims’ of the offense.”
Upholding the convictions of Fessenden and Dicke, Justice Martha Lee Walters wrote, “We conclude that the officer [who entered their land] acted lawfully because he had probable cause to believe that defendants were committing the crime of animal neglect and reasonably believed, based on specific articulable facts, that immediate action was necessary to prevent further imminent harm to and the death of the horse.”