Pets Are Only Property, Says Oregon Court as it Sets Accused Abuser Free
Because a veterinarian treated and tested an emaciated dog without a warrant after police lawfully seized it, the Oregon Court of Appeals has thrown out a woman’s animal neglect conviction. She will likely go free because of it.
How can it possibly pose a legal problem to get medical treatment for a starving, abused dog? Providing the medical care itself wasn’t the issue. Relying on that treatment information as evidence in court, however, was another matter.
Oregon, it seems, doesn’t believe an animal has any inherent legal right to medical care.
How Authorities Discovered What Was Going On
The Oregon Humane Society (OHS) dispatched an animal cruelty investigator in 2010 to look into a report that Amanda Newcomb was starving and beating her dog, Juno, as well as leaving the dog in a kennel for hours on end. That investigator, accompanied by a police officer, saw the dog “in near emaciated condition” at Newcomb’s home, “kind of eating at random things in the yard, and trying to vomit.”
The officer seized the dog, believing it “appeared neglected” and that there was a “strong possibility” it needed medical attention. He took it to an OHS veterinarian, who took blood and fecal samples and fed the poor dog.
Over time, the veterinarian’s care revealed that Juno’s condition was due to malnourishment, not to any underlying disease or condition. Oregon prosecutors used this information in court to prove Newcomb starved and mistreated her dog. They won a conviction, which Newcomb appealed.
Here’s where the fate of abused domesticated animals in Oregon took an unfortunate turn for the worse.
The Defendant‘s Constitutional Argument: Pets Are Property
Newcomb argued on appeal that her dog was personal property. As such, she argued, she had a constitutionally protected privacy interest in Juno just as she would for other personal items like a pocket knife or a pair of boots.
As the court described Newcomb’s argument:
[A]t the time [the officer] seized the dog, he did not have probable cause to believe that the reason it was skinny was because of some failure on [defendant's] part. As a result, defendant argued, all “derivative evidence” of the warrantless seizure should be suppressed.
More to the point, the evidence that convicted Newcomb revealed “information not otherwise exposed to public view,” she argued. The vet’s test results “reveal[ed] all these intimate details about the dog’s body chemistry, about its blood levels, about its feeding habits, all of these things were information that was not otherwise exposed to public view.”
That being the case, Newcomb argued, authorities should have first obtained a search warrant to do such testing if they wanted to use those results against her in court.
Court Rejects State‘s “Novel Argument“ That Animals Have a Right to Care
The trial court found that the veterinarian’s actions did not constitute a search and required no warrant. Newcomb was convicted of second-degree animal neglect.
On appeal, the state defended the conviction by arguing that “although [animals] are property in the eyes of the law, they have a statutory right to basic care separate and apart from their owners’ possessory interests.” Unfortunately, the Oregon Appeals Court did not agree.
Disturbingly, the appeals court instead rejected what it called “the state’s novel claim that an animal’s statutory rights ‘trump’ a defendant’s constitutional rights.”
Animals, held the court, are sentient creatures statutorily protected from abuse, but are also recognized under the law as having owners. If they are property, they fall under the same constitutional search and seizure rules as any other type of property.
Ultimately, the court concluded that while seizure of the dog was accomplished legally, “the extraction and testing of the dog’s blood was a ‘search,’ because those actions constitute a physical invasion of defendant’s personal property that revealed otherwise concealed evidence.”
See a news story that includes an interview with the defendant, Amanda Newcomb, at this link.
Animals Are Beings, Too
What a sad result. Oregon’s lower courts had recognized this dog’s independent right to care, and a higher court slapped them down for it. Because Juno’s medical treatment information made up the bulk of the case against Newcomb, retrying her without that evidence is unlikely to happen.
Will this result force Oregon authorities to choose between getting immediate emergency care for abused animals or wasting precious hours while they seek a warrant? Without that warrant, anything revealed by the medical treatment of the animal is unlikely to be admissible evidence.
Perhaps it’s time for Oregon and other states to recognize that animals, like humans, do indeed have a right to medical care in these situations. They need to be recognized as more than mere “property.” Animals are beings in their own right. They are not pocket knives or boots.
Photo credits: Thinkstock