People v. FoxPosted by Chris Berry, ALDF's Litigation Fellow on March 12th, 2012
"If foxes and rabbits have rights, then is a fox guilty of murder for eating a rabbit?"
This counter-argument commonly creeps up in discussions about animal rights and poses many interesting questions: if foxes have a right not to be killed by humans then do they have a duty not to eat rabbits? Is the fox guilty of murder for doing so? Do human governments have to police the woods and put foxes on trial who are caught eating rabbits?
The basic support for this line of reasoning is exemplified by the legal maxim “there are no rights without responsibilities.” This maxim is reflected throughout the law – for example, we have the right to enter into contracts but the responsibility to adhere to those contracts; we have the right to drive a car but the responsibility to drive carefully; we have the right to be free from violence but the responsibility not to direct violence toward others. If a fox has the right to be free from violence, shouldn’t it have corresponding duties as well?
All crimes include two components: actus reus (a guilty act) and a mens rea (a guilty mind). Examples of actus reus include breaking and entering, causing death, or taking somebody else’s property. However, these acts must be coupled with a corresponding guilty mental state such as breaking and entering with the intent to commit a felony therein, causing death with reckless abandon for human life, or taking somebody else’s property with the intent to dispossess them of it.
Under the English common law, the defense of infancy provides that a child under the age of 7 is incapable of committing a crime. In other words, a child so young cannot be guilty of a crime because they do not appreciate the nature of right and wrong. This rule still exists in the United States though the age of infancy varies slightly from state to state.
The application to the case against the fox is obvious: if a child has rights but is incapable of possessing a criminally guilty mind then a fox may have rights too without corresponding criminal liability. Since by most accounts even the most intelligent nonhuman animals fall below the mental capacity of a 7-year-old child it would seem that animals are not liable for committing crimes even if we grant them some basic rights.
Even if we were to impose criminal liability on animals there are two additional reasons we would avoid such an absurd result as putting a fox on trial for eating a rabbit. First, the fox’s attorney would raise a defense that the fox’s action is excusable because it is necessary for the fox to stay alive. Although killing people is usually considered murder or manslaughter, there are defenses such as necessity (killing another to save many) and self-defense (killing another to protect oneself) that exculpate the killer. It’s unclear that either of those specific defenses would apply here, but it may be appropriate for the court to recognize a predator’s defense since the fox is primarily motivated by doing something good (i.e., survival instead of malice) and has no viable alternative.
The last reason why giving rights to foxes and rabbits would not lead to People v. Fox is because our courts would not have jurisdiction to hear the case in the first place. Jurisdiction means “power to decide” and is a legal concept that gives court the power to make enforceable legal judgments. One major requirement for a court to have jurisdiction in a particular case is that the government has some interest in the outcome. If a New Yorker assaults somebody in downtown Manhattan then New York courts have an interest in hearing the case since that state’s criminal laws, public order, and residents are affected. However, if a British person assaults another Brit in downtown London then the New York courts would have no jurisdiction to try the case because New York has no interest in the outcome.
The same principle of jurisdiction applies to foxes and rabbits. Even if a fox ate a rabbit on New York soil, that state’s interest in deciding the rights between wildlife is so small that jurisdiction to decide the matter would be non-existent or imprudent. Thus we avoid the absurdity presented by People v. Fox because the fox has not committed a crime and, even if it were otherwise, our courts would be an improper venue to decide a case between wildlife.