Animal Cruelty May Be Designated Crime of Domestic Violence in Washington

When a Washington crime is designated a crime of domestic violence, the alleged victim is afforded certain additional protections.  Such cases get priority scheduling.  Courts may issue pre-trial no-contact orders and specialized no-contact orders at sentencing. A defendant recently challenged the domestic violence designation and aggravators applied to his animal cruelty conviction.

According to the Washington Supreme Court’s opinion, the defendant had been abusive to both his girlfriend and her dog.  After taking the dog for a walk over his girlfriend’s objection, he called her and told her the dog had escaped the harness. His girlfriend could hear the dog yelping and did not think she had escaped.

Two witnesses heard noises and saw the defendant beating the dog.  One witness called the police while the other yelled for the defendant to stop.  After exchanging some words with the witness, the defendant ultimately walked away.

Officers took the dog to an emergency clinic. They informed the defendant’s girlfriend the dog was at the veterinary clinic, but sadly, the dog died before she arrived.

One of the witnesses testified she had a severe panic attack that night and flashbacks the next week.

The state sought two sentencing aggravators and a domestic violence designation on a charge of first degree animal cruelty.  The state alleged the defendant’s conduct while committing domestic violence showed deliberate cruelty or intimidation of the victim and that the crime had a destructive and foreseeable impact on people other than the victim.

The jury convicted the defendant guilty of the charge. The jury did not find the crime manifested deliberate cruelty or intimidation, but did find it involved destructive and foreseeable impact on persons other than the victim.

The court sentenced the defendant to 12 months for animal cruelty, with another 6 months added due to the aggravator.  It also issued a no-contact order due to the domestic violence designation.

On appeal, the aggravator, domestic violence designation, and no-contact order were vacated. The Washington Supreme Court granted review.

The supreme court concluded that animal cruelty may be designated a crime of domestic violence. The court noted that designating a crime of domestic violence does not change the elements of the offense or increase the defendant’s punishment.

The domestic violence statute includes a list of crimes that may be domestic violence when committed by an intimate partner against an intimate partner or a household or family member against a household or family member. RCW 10.99.020(4).  The defendant argued the list did not include animal cruelty, but the supreme court pointed out that the statute states the list is not exclusive.  The supreme court found animal cruelty was “sufficiently similar” to the listed crimes for the trial court to ask the jury to consider a domestic violence designation under the circumstances.

The defendant argued that animal cruelty was not sufficiently similar to the listed crimes because it did not have a human victim, but the supreme court noted that some of the listed crimes were against property. The supreme court further pointed out that pets are legally personal property and the defendant’s girlfriend was harmed by the crime.  The supreme court considered the definition of “victim” in the sentencing reform act and concluded the defendant’s girlfriend was a victim of the crime.  RCW 9.94A.030.  The plain language of the statutes allows animal cruelty to be designated a crim of domestic violence.

The supreme court found its conclusion aligned with the legislative intent to give victims of domestic violence maximum protection. The legislature stated it “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.” Laws of 2009, ch. 439, § 1.

The supreme court found the trial court had properly instructed the jury that animal cruelty could be designated a crime of domestic violence.  The trial court, therefore, could enter the no-contact order.

The supreme court also found the aggravator was properly applied.  The crime had an impact not only on the dog and its owner, the defendant’s girlfriend, but also on the witness.  The witness testified about the psychological affects the incident had on her, including panic attacks, flashbacks, and difficulty sleeping. Justice Stephens dissented in this portion of the opinion, stating that the majority holding “dramatically expands the application of this sentencing enhancement factor that was intended to be narrow in scope. . .”

The supreme court reversed the Court of Appeals and remanded the case.

If you are facing criminal charges involving an intimate partner, an experienced Washington criminal defense attorney can help you.  At Blair & Kim, PLLC, we are knowledgeable in both criminal defense law and protection orders.  Call us at (206) 622-6562 to schedule a consultation to discuss your case.


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