Court rules animals aren't just property

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— Animals can be considered victims of crime, the Oregon Court of Appeals has ruled on a neglect case from Umatilla County.

The ruling handed down Wednesday sends a Stanfield man back to face sentencing on 20 counts of second-degree animal abuse.

Scott A. Heiser of the Animal Legal Defense Fund called the ruling a “significant result” for authorities who go after animal neglect and abuse cases.

A tip led the Umatilla County Sheriff's Office to arrest 68-year-old Arnold Weldon Nix at his farm in April 2009. Officers found “dozens of emaciated animals, mostly horses and goats, and several animal carcasses in various states of decay,” according to the court ruling.

A jury convicted Nix in March 2010, but Circuit Court Judge Jeffrey Wallace 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 ruling stated, “the trial court erred in merging the guilty verdicts.”

Heiser, who filed a brief in support of the state's position, said it's rare for laws to allow animals to be victims. Most laws, including in Oregon, say people can be victims, as well as other entities, such as corporations, while animals are usually defined as property.

If Nix had rented space to house horses and harmed those animals, then every horse owner would be a victim, Heiser explained. Nix, 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 Legislature's intent regarding language in the laws of animal neglect and determining multiple victims.

“In short,” the court found, “based on the text and context of ORS 167.325 (second-degree animal neglect), it appears that the Legislature's 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 Nix was found guilty qualified as a separate victim for purposes of sentencing, and Wallace shouldn't have merged the counts.

Wallace retired at the end of 2010.

Morrow County District Attorney Justin Nelson, who prosecuted the case as a deputy DA in Umatilla County, said he was pleased with Wednesday's ruling. He recalled that the judge at sentencing said killing many horses was no different than injuring a single horse.

“The equity aspect just wasn't there,” Nelson said. “Logically, that just didn't make much sense.”

Nelson, whose office is considering a separate case of neglect of horses, said the ruling allows prosecutors and judges to use their discretion in these cases. The ruling pointed out the appeals court wasn't taking on “a potential parade of horribles, such as the prospect of multiple convictions arising from an omission such as the failure to adequately care for a fish bowl full of guppies.”

The appeals process delayed Nix's sentencing, which will take place in Umatilla County. District Attorney Dan Primus said the sentencing hasn't been scheduled.

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