A Washington Supreme Court found that a person can be a victim of a crime of domestic violence if their pet is subjected to acts of animal cruelty by a partner to cause the person/victim psychological harm.  Such cases require a fact-based inquiry of the underlying crime, the validity of the domestic relationship, and the intent by a partner to harm/injure an animal to cause harm to the domestic violence victim.

In State v. Abdi-Issa, 99581-8, 2022 WL 481421 (Wash. Feb. 17, 2022), the Washington Supreme Court upheld a jury finding that a person who committed first degree animal cruelty, intentionally and brutally killing the beloved pet of his domestic partner, had committed a crime of domestic violence.  In its analysis, the Court rejected both of defendant’s arguments: 1) that since animal cruelty was not expressly enumerated in the Washington State Domestic Violence statute it could not be designated a crime of domestic violation; and 2) that “as a matter of law, animal cruelty is not a domestic violence offense because the victim of that offense is an animal, not a person.”  Id., at *4 (emphasis added).

While the Court agreed that animal cruelty was not included in the domestic violence statute, it nevertheless could constitute such an act, based on the facts of the case, stating

[Defendant] is correct that animal cruelty is not listed in RCW 10.99.020. But the list of crimes is explicitly nonexclusive. Animal cruelty is sufficiently similar to the enumerated crimes that the trial court did not err in asking the jury whether, under these facts, it was a crime of domestic violence.

Id., at *3.

The Court held that the victim here, the owner of the pet viciously killed, was a domestic violence crime victim, not just because of the psychological abuse she suffered from the intentional killing of her pet, but as “a part of a larger pattern of assaultive, coercive, and controlling behavior” perpetrated against her by the defendant.  Id., at *4.

As a matter of public policy, the Court states that “[t]he Washington legislature passed the domestic violence act ‘to recognize the importance of domestic violence as a serious crime against society and to assure the victim of domestic violence the maximum protection from abuse which the law and those who enforce the law can provide.’”  Id., at *3 (quoting RCW 10.99.010).

Similarly, in other jurisdictions, whether or not animal cruelty is expressly included as a potential offense that could constitute domestic violence, courts can determine, after a fact-based inquiry, that a person was a victim to a domestic violence offense when their pet is harmed by a domestic partner to intentionally inflict harm to that person.

However, the Court in State v. Abdi-Issa, muddies the waters when discussing whether such conduct can be used to extend a defendant’s sentence in Washington.  In Washington an offense that involves “a destructive and foreseeable impact on persons other than the victim” of a crime can be used as an aggravating factor in sentencing.  Id., at * 5.  Justice J. Stephens, dissented in part, out of concern that the “finding of a ‘destructive and foreseeable impact’ in this case was based on the mere fact that the crime was committed in public.  Many other crimes conducted in public, could result in a witness who became significantly distressed.  Under this test, “what was designed to be a narrow basis for an exceptional sentence [could morph] into a new a powerful charging tool that will weigh heavily in plea negotiations and lead to sentencing disparities.”  Id.

While rejecting the majority decision regarding the aggregator factor here, the dissent pointed out that legislators have established more punitive sentences for acts of animal cruelty when compared to destruction of non-animal property in recognition of the public impact of and concern about animal cruelty.

It would not be surprising if the majority opinion here, finding that an act of animal cruelty witnessed by one other than the victim (here defined as the person) warranted an exceptional sentence, will be used to argue that non-economic damages based on similar facts should be awarded to pet owners and other witnesses of animal cruelty in other cases.