Oregon is again the first state where prosecutors may count each abused animal as a crime victim. The state did so once before and then took it back, but now it has reinstated the court precedent to let animals count as individuals under state law.

Non-humans have long had victim status under the law. Partnerships, corporations, nonprofit organizations, churches, trade associations, unions, and country clubs are among the crime victims recognized by various state laws.

toomanycats_406x250How a new Oregon Appeals Court ruling has reinstated animals as individual victims is a story that begins with 45 cats found living with a woman named Terrianne Hess who, according to expert testimony, was suffering from Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder. Her lawyer wanted Oregon courts to consider those cats her property, not the separate victims of her confused mind.

State v. Hess is a big win for animal rights activists in that, for the time being at least, it reinstates the decision in the case of State v. Nix. It was in the Nix case that the Oregon Supreme Court first ruled that animals could be crime victims. But it turned out that case had gone to the high court by mistake and, in March 2015, state judges vacated the decision.

Nix, however, is the precedent cited in the new case, State v. Hess. The Oregon State Court of Appeals has reinstated Nix, to the delight of the animal rights movement.

To get there, the appellate judges accepted the trial court’s jury instructions that had the effect of setting aside the mental condition of defendant Hess. Her attorney also “assigns error to the trial court’s failure to merge the guilty verdicts on the 45 animal-neglect counts into a single conviction for first-degree animal-neglect,” the appeals court decision states.

“Defendant argues that the trial court erred in concluding that each animal was a separate victim for purposes of Oregon’s anti-merger statute, ORS 161.067(2), which provides that, ‘when the same conduct or criminal episode, though violating only one statutory provision involves two or more victims, there are as many separately punishable offenses as there are victims.’”

The ruling that’s now the law in Oregon, however, relied on the state supreme court’s Nix decision, which, though vacated, nonetheless persuaded the appeals court.

In the Hess case, the trial court found the defendant’s mental disorder was not enough to physically prevent her from taking care of the cats. Hess was living in a duplex in Gresham, OR, when local police made a “welfare check” and found the residence “reeked of urine” from 38 living cats “covered with fleas.” Seven dead cats were also found on the premises. “Cat feces covered the carpet, sink, and dishwasher,” according to the appeals court ruling.

A city housing inspector was called in and found the duplex unfit for human habitation. An expert testified that certain of Hess’s behaviors were out of control and were the result of the inability to think through decisions.

In the original Nix case, Umatilla County Circuit Court Judge Jeffrey Wallace had ruled that in a livestock case, an animal is not a victim under Oregon law, and his ruling was not subject to appeal by the state because only misdemeanors were involved. That case involved the seizure of 69 horses for neglect in Umatilla County in 2010, resulting in 20 counts of second-degree animal neglect being charged.

But the Nix case also prompted the Oregon Legislature to change second-degree animal neglect from a misdemeanor to a felony when 11 or more animals are involved. That means that the resurrected Nix decision may count individual livestock as crime victims as well.

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