Animals can be considered victims of crime, the Oregon Court of Appeals has ruled on an animal neglect case from Umatilla County. The ruling, which the court 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, Portland, called the ruling a “significant result” for authorities who go after animal neglect and abuse cases.

A tip about animal neglect led the Umatilla County Sheriff’s Office to arrest Arnold Weldon Nix, 68, in April 2009 at his Stanfield farm, where 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 of 20 counts of second-degree animal abuse, but Circuit Court Judge Jeffrey Wallace merged them 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 into a single conviction.”

Heiser explained 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. Heiser filed a brief for the court in support of the state’s position to overcome that context.

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 explained 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 Wednesday he was pleased with the ruling. He recalled 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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Contact Phil Wright at pwright@eastoregonian.com or 541-966-0833.

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