OREGON -- The Oregon Court of Appeals Wednesday threw out the conviction of a 28-year-old woman found guilty of starving her dog based on evidence from a veterinarian who tested and treated the animal without a warrant.
The ruling could set a precedent by making it more difficult for animal-cruelty investigators to seek instantaneous care for beaten, starved or otherwise injured pets. And the ruling could make it tougher for prosecutors to go after people suspected of abusing or neglecting their animals.
In reversing the 2011 misdemeanor conviction of Amanda L. Newcomb, a three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals ruled that animals are living beings but they are also property under the eyes of the law. And that doesn’t trump their owners’ constitutional rights to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.
The case at issue began when an informant told the Oregon Humane Society that Portland-area resident Newcomb was beating her dog, failing to properly feed it and keeping it in a kennel for many hours a day. An animal-cruelty investigator went to Newcomb’s apartment in December 2010 and, once invited in, saw the dog in the yard “in a near emaciated condition.” The dog, the investigator reported, “was kind of eating at random things in the yard, and trying to vomit.”
The investigator asked why, and Newcomb said she was out of dog food but that she was going to get more that night, according to the Court of Appeals’ summary of the case.
The investigator determined a “strong possibility” existed that the dog needed medical care and brought the dog to a Humane Society vet. The vet gave the dog food, charted his weight and measured his rapid weight gain over several days. The vet also tested the dog’s feces and blood, ruling out disease. The investigator concluded nothing was wrong with the dog other than it was very hungry.
Newcombe was charged in Multnomah County Circuit Court with second-degree animal neglect.
She tried to suppress the vet’s findings by saying her state and federal constitutional rights to be protected from unreasonable search and seizure were violated when the investigator seized her dog without a warrant and the veterinarian tested her dog without a warrant.
Newcomb argued that dogs are personal property and she has the same privacy rights to her dog as she would to objects such as pocket knives or boots -- which is a reference to previous case law.
The prosecutor countered that unlike other possessions, animals have a right to medical care and to be free from neglect.
Judge Eric Bergstrom denied Newcomb’s attempt to suppress the evidence, and she was found guilty. She was sentence to one year of probation and ordered not to possess animals for five years.
The Court of Appeals on Wednesday found that the investigator had probable cause to seize the dog and didn’t need a warrant. But the appeals court found the vet’s “search” of the dog violated Newcomb’s privacy rights because the authorities hadn't obtained a warrant.
Although many judges would likely issue a warrant under such circumstances, critics argue the ruling will slow down the process of getting medical care to animals.
The appeals court sent the case back to Multnomah County Circuit Court for further proceedings, but it is unlikely Newcomb will be retried since the main evidence against her isn’t admissible.
Judges Timothy Sercombe, Darleen Ortega and Erika Hadlock took part in the decision.
(Oregon Live - April 16, 2014)