Wielding the Gavel Against Animal Cruelty

When it comes to animal cruelty cases, it is often hard to tell whether the glass is half empty or half full. Some individuals who have committed heinous acts of abuse are not even prosecuted, while others are held accountable. Although there are still far too many sad and disappointing examples of the former, instances of the latter are on the rise. Thanks to public pressure and heightened awareness of animal abuse as a serious crime in its own right and as a factor in interpersonal violence, law enforcement authorities are taking animal cruelty crimes far more seriously. Training in best practices for investigating and prosecuting these crimes is giving officials the tools they need to bring cases to court and convince judges and juries that they, too, must take this issue seriously. Although the punishment isn’t always as severe as it should be, any time a court rejects the “it’s only an animal” mindset, the closer we come to securing justice for all animals.

It is particularly noteworthy when top law enforcement officials publicize the successful conclusion of animal cruelty cases. In June, the US Attorney’s Office in Delaware announced that an individual had been sentenced to more than seven years in prison for cocaine possession with intent to distribute, being a felon in possession of a firearm, and dog fighting. A raid of his home turned up drugs, guns, 67 pit bulls, and a large number of items associated with dog fighting. The US Attorney’s office indicated that many of the dogs bore scars from fighting and that dogs who lost matches sometimes were disposed of by being shot or suffocated. Bringing this case involved the coordinated efforts of the Delaware State Police, the US Drug Enforcement Administration, Delaware Animal Care and Control, and the US Department of Agriculture—clearly a significant investment of state and federal resources.

Last year, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring’s office successfully concluded a multi-agency, multi-jurisdiction undercover bust of a “large-scale and comprehensive” cockfighting ring based in the eastern Kentucky community of McDowell. Operators of the ring transported animals and fighting equipment between Virginia and Kentucky. An estimated $1 million in revenue was generated from illegal gambling, entrance fees, membership fees, parking fees, sales of fighting-related items, and a restaurant, with fight spectators coming from surrounding states and beyond. On the day of the bust, over $100,000 was seized from the home of several of the defendants.

Assistant US Attorney Randy Ramseyer and Special Assistant US Attorney/Assistant Virginia Attorney General Michelle Welch (a past recipient of AWI’s Schweitzer Medal) prosecuted the case. All five defendants (which included distant cousins of the Kentucky Speaker of the House) received prison terms, ranging from 6 to 18 months, and had to forfeit substantial sums of money. During sentencing, presiding Judge James P. Jones stated, “‘It does not enhance the human being to inflict pain on animals. It simply doesn’t. It’s something that ought to stop. There is no good purpose for it, and, as the government points out, bad things happen around these types of events. … It diminishes us as human beings to treat animals in this fashion.’”1

As important as these large-scale, high-profile cases are in calling attention to the pervasive problem of animal abuse and animal fighting, they are not the cruelty problems that occur in most communities on a regular basis. At least one state, however, has elevated the legal status of animals in these sadly all-too-routine cases of neglect and abuse, as well.

In a case cited in the AWI Quarterly (fall 2014), Arnold Nix of Stanfield, Oregon, was found guilty in 2009 on 20 counts of second-degree neglect after authorities seized 69 horses, goats and dogs from his farm. At the time of trial, this form of neglect was a misdemeanor in Oregon. The prosecutor argued that Nix should be sentenced on each of the 20 separate counts, with each animal treated as a separate victim. The defendant argued that livestock are property, not individuals, and that the counts, therefore, should be merged into a single conviction. The trial judge agreed and sentenced Nix to a mere 90 days in jail for a single violation of the law.

The state appealed the merger decision to the Oregon Court of Appeals and won, and the Oregon Supreme Court later affirmed the appellate court’s ruling. Hence, in Oregon, animals were afforded the status of individual crime victims… or so it was thought. In a strange twist, the decision was later vacated because Oregon law at the time actually did not allow appeals of misdemeanor sentences—meaning that neither the Court of Appeals nor the Supreme Court actually had jurisdiction in State v. Nix. A positive result still ensued: motivated by this story, the state legislature changed the law to provide for a felony penalty for second-degree neglect involving 11 or more animals.

Moreover, a later case offered the Oregon Court of Appeals another chance to do right by animals. In State v. Hess, the defendant was charged with seven counts of first-degree neglect after seven cats in her home died of severe anemia and starvation, and 38 counts of second-degree neglect with respect to the remaining cats who were found alive. Convicted on all 45 counts, the defendant argued at sentencing that all the guilty verdicts should be merged since the cats were her property and the only “victim” was the public. The trial judge disagreed on the grounds that the animal-neglect statutes were enacted to protect animals—thus making each cat an individual victim under Oregon’s anti-merger law. Under the same reasoning it applied in the Nix case, the Oregon Court of Appeals affirmed.

As these cases show, while there are still far too many instances when animals routinely do not receive their day in court, there has been progress in how cases are handled, how the courts view animals, and, in general, in the development of animal law jurisprudence—all of which should pave the way for such outcomes becoming the norm, not the exception.

1As quoted in an October 9, 2014, press release issued by the Office of the Attorney General for the Commonwealth of Virginia.

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