Crime Victim Bill of Rights and Animal LawPosted by Scott Heiser, Director of ALDF's Criminal Justice Program on April 18, 2011
For those who practice animal law, a persistent debate rages on: of the many options available, which legal path is the best course to take to improve the plight of animals in the United States? A host of thorny issues permeate this debate, from questions derivative of the notion that animals are “mere property in the eyes of the law,” to arguments on the viability of various theories one might use to secure the legal standing necessary to force a hearing on how we treat animals used to meet consumer demands.
Some advocate for litigating that elusive “silver bullet” civil case wherein a state supreme court would ultimately recognize the legal “personhood” of an animal and thus resolve a host of issues, the least of which being the question of who has standing to sue. Others, perhaps cognizant of the general shift away from the common law to a more statutory and regulatory legal environment, favor a purely legislative approach, be it at the state house or via the initiative process. Having spent more than 20 years practicing criminal law (a fact that I readily admit influences my thinking here) where crimes are statutorily defined, but the overriding rules of engagement (e.g., the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth and Eighth Amendments) are decidedly the product of judicial edict, I see utility in the arguments advanced by both camps. Regardless of where you might fall in this spectrum, I respectfully submit that there is currently an enormous opportunity to advance the cause (and improve the lives of animals) via the aggressive application of procedural tools and remedies commonly found in the criminal justice system–namely your state’s crime victim bill of rights.
An example of such an application is found in a recent neglect case prosecuted in San Bernardino County, CA. In that case, the defendant was convicted of felony animal cruelty because she failed, inter alia, to secure veterinary treatment for an injured dog under her care. Once taken to the vet, what remained of the victim-dog’s leg had to be amputated. While tragic, these types of cases are routine in many states (though the fact that this case was treated as a felony is still relatively rare). What distinguishes this case from the fray is the fact that the trial judge allowed the investigating officer to appear at sentencing and tender a victim impact statement on behalf of the now three-legged dog. That seemingly innocuous event (i.e., the court’s acceptance of a crime victim’s impact information from the victim’s agent), while common in child and elder abuse cases, is a significant event in an animal cruelty prosecution. The reason: because most states narrowly define a “crime victim” to include human beings, family members of deceased humans, corporate entities and/or governmental bodies. However, we see more and more judges willing to recognize animals as victims in cruelty cases–a very positive trend.
Mindful that any judicial recognition of a victim’s plight creates a significantly steeper downside for a defendant, defense attorneys commonly use the “animals are mere property” argument to assert that, at least in cases where the offender owned the victim animal, the only legal victim is the state, not the victim animal. If successful, this move can secure the defendant a host of tactical and procedural advantages including: a better felony sentencing guidelines score; the merger of multiple convictions into one charge; the removal of any risk of consecutive sentences; a potential for expungement of the conviction; and less exposure in any subsequent crime charges in years to come. Prosecutors are, however, becoming much more adept at rebutting these arguments, feeding an inevitable growth in the judicial recognition of the obvious: that the true victims of abuse and neglect are those beings who have suffered the harm that is the essence of the substantive crime. By thus recognizing animals as victims, the justice system does more than give the prosecution the upper hand at sentencing. Rather, we institutionalize the fundamental concept that animals have rights as victims. In so doing, we do much more than establish a tenuous “toe hold” legal notion. Rather, we create a significant legal advance that will aid civil litigators in their quest to secure standing, add to the continued and accelerating erosion of the notion that animals should be treated the same as a sofa, and (perhaps most significantly) drive legislative policy via systemic judicial recognition that all crime victims enjoy a set of fundamental and inalienable rights.