March 03, 2022

More Than A Link: The Washington Supreme Court Unanimously Holds That Animal Cruelty Can Also Constitute Domestic Violence

The Washington Supreme Court has unanimously confirmed that not only are domestic violence and animal cruelty linked, but that animal cruelty can also constitute domestic violence. In this blog, CALS Associate Director and Adjunct Professor, Megan Senatori, provides an overview of the decision and considers how the law could improve for victims from here.

The link between domestic violence and animal cruelty is well-established in research, among a wide variety of professions, and, at last, it is also more commonly known by the public. This increased awareness has led to an array of important laws and policies responsive to the link. Now, the Washington Supreme Court has unanimously confirmed that not only is there a link—animal cruelty can also constitute domestic violence. This blog provides an overview of the decision and considers how the law could improve for victims from here.

State v. Abdi-Issa, No. 99581-8, 2022 WL 481421 (Wash. Feb. 17, 2022) arose out of a criminal animal cruelty conviction against the defendant, Charmarke Abdi-Issa, for viciously beating his girlfriend’s dog, Mona, in a Seattle parking lot. See id. at 1. The lethal attack is described in graphic detail in the decision, but omitted here. Id. at 2-4. Suffice it to say, the assault on Mona was brutal, intentional, and not out of the blue. It was part of a long pattern of Abdi-Issa using Mona to exercise power and control over his girlfriend, Julie Fairbanks.

The State charged Abdi-Issa with animal cruelty in the first degree and sought a domestic violence designation. Id. at 4. Such a designation permits additional protections for domestic violence victims at the time of sentencing, such as a post-conviction no-contact order. Id. Abdi-Issa unsuccessfully moved to dismiss the designation. Id. Following the jury’s conviction of Abdi-Issa on animal cruelty, the trial court issued a separate postconviction domestic violence no-contact order to protect Fairbanks. Id. at 5-6. Abdi-Issa received an 18 month sentence (12-months for the animal cruelty conviction, plus six months for the foreseeable impact on a bystander who witnessed the attack; this blog does not address the latter issue). Id. at 4.

The Washington Court of Appeals Decision

On appeal, Abdi-Issa challenged the domestic violence designation, arguing that because his crime was against an animal, not a person, the domestic violence designation was improper. See State v. Abdi-Issa, No. 80024-8-I, 2021 WL 595085 (Wash. Ct. App. Feb. 16, 2021). Examining the relevant statutes, the Court of Appeals’ unpublished decision noted that the definition of “domestic violence” includes a non-exhaustive list of crimes committed by by “one family or household member against another family or household member.” Id. at 5. Animal cruelty was not among the crimes listed in RCW 10.99.020(5), but the statute leaves the court with discretion to designate unlisted crimes. Id. The court ultimately held that “Abdi-Issa committed the crime of animal cruelty against Mona, not Fairbanks” and because “Mona was not a ‘person’”, she could not qualify as a ‘family or household member.’” Id. The Court of Appeals vacated the domestic violence designation and the no-contact order. Id.

The Washington Supreme Court Decision

The Washington Supreme Court granted review. The issue on appeal was “whether animal cruelty may be designated a crime of domestic violence.” Abdi-Issa, 2022 WL at 3. Abdi-Issa argued that animal cruelty was not sufficiently similar to the types of crimes listed in RCW 10.99.020 because it does not involve a human victim. Id. at 4. The justices unanimously disagreed, noting the following:

  • Animals are legally considered property and domestic violence can involve property crimes, such as burglary and malicious mischief. Id. Here, “Fairbanks was directly harmed as a result of Abdi-Issa’s violent killing of her beloved pet and companion. She is plainly a victim of Abdi-Issa’s crime.” Id.
  • A “victim” is defined as “any person who has sustained emotional, psychological, physical, or financial injury to person or property as a direct result of the crime charged.” RCW 9.94A.030(54). Id. That definition encompasses Fairbanks, as her “testimony suggests psychological abuse, which was a part of a larger pattern of assaultive, coercive, and controlling behavior, occurred.” Id.
  • The Washington Legislature intended victims of domestic violence to receive the maximum protections afforded under law and specifically recognized the link between domestic violence and animal cruelty. (“The legislature intends that perpetrators of domestic violence not be allowed to further terrorize and manipulate their victims, or the children of their victims, by using the threat of violence toward pets.”) (citation omitted). Id.
  • The Legislature’s recognition of the link was “amply supported by research into domestic violence. Animal abuse is an indicator of domestic abuse in a relationship.” Id. at 5 (citation omitted).

The Court held “that the jury was properly instructed that it could find animal abuse was a crime of domestic violence. Thus, the trial court had the authority to enter a postconviction no-contact order under RCW 10.99.050.” Id

Epilogue

The Washington Supreme Court’s decision is a welcome step in the right direction and it should be applauded. Yet it also underscores the importance of the law explicitly recognizing that when animal cruelty occurs as part of an intimate relationship, it is also domestic violence. The abuser’s essential purpose is to threaten and torment the human victim using animals as pawns by exploiting the human-animal bond. This category of domestic abuse is also disturbingly common: studies dating back to the late 1990s found that as many as 71% of victims reported that their abusive partner had threatened, harmed or killed their animals. A consensus of research confirms this link, as discussed in an earlier blog.

Because the research is clear that animals are commonly targets for abusers, it is unfortunate that the decision did not squarely address the Court of Appeals’ holding that the domestic violence designation could not be based on the injury to Mona. The Court should have seized the opportunity to hold that animals can, themselves, be victims, as Oregon’s appellate courts have done in other cases. See e.g., State of Oregon v. Hess, 273 Or. App. 26 (2015) (applying Oregon’s “anti-merger” statute and holding that each abused animal qualified as a separate victim); State v. Nix, 334 P.3d 437 (2015) (also applying Oregon’s “anti-merger” statute and holding that “the ordinary meaning of the word ‘victim’ as it is used in ORS 161.067(2) can include both human and non-human animals”) (vacated on other grounds).

How might the law improve from here? Our laws should explicitly list animal cruelty among those crimes that can also constitute domestic violence, whether for purposes of a victim obtaining a domestic violence restraining order (based on threats or harm to an animal) or a domestic violence designation to enhance victim protections. Treating animal cruelty and domestic violence as if they are unrelated in this context produces short-sighted outcomes that fail to adequately protect victims, like the Court of Appeals’ decision vacating the no-contact order designed to protect Fairbanks.

This is not to say that every act of animal cruelty is an act of domestic violence – far from it. But when animal cruelty is part of the exercise of power and control within an intimate relationship, it is obvious and, as U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously said regarding obscenity in Jacobellis v. Ohio, 378 U.S. 184, 197 (1964), “I know it when I see it.” The Washington Supreme Court’s decision in Abdi-Issa confirms the undeniable truth that every victim and victim advocate already sees: when animal cruelty occurs as part of the power and control dynamic in an intimate relationship it is also domestic violence, and it always has (at least) two victims. It is time for our laws to explicitly acknowledge it.

Megan Senatori is the Associate Director and an Adjunct Professor at CALS. She has two decades of experience working on the link between animal cruelty and domestic violence. In 2001, she co-founded an all-volunteer nonprofit organization that recognizes animals as vital family members and arranges for their safe harbor when a domestic abuse victim seeks refuge from an abuser. She teaches Companion Animal Law.

 

The Center for Animal Law Studies (CALS) was founded in 2008 with a mission to educate the next generation of animal law attorneys and advance animal protection through the law. With vision and bold risk-taking, CALS has since developed into a world-renowned animal law epicenter, with the most comprehensive animal law curriculum offered anywhere. In addition, CALS is the only program that offers an advanced legal degree in animal law, now offered both in-person and online, and three specialty animal law clinics. CALS is a nonprofit organization and is only able to provide these educational opportunities through donations and grants.