Last week, the Oregon Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling finding that an emaciated dog named Juno is more than just a thing, under the law. The court found instead that, in a significant way, Juno is akin to a human child.
This may not sound totally remarkable if you are not a lawyer. You and I know that dogs are creatures, beings, with hopes (for treats) and dreams (that cause their feet to twitch), and personalities (that we adore).
Under the law, dogs and other animals are, by and large, considered to be property—on more or less equal footing with tables and chairs, purses and chests of drawers. What that means is that they can be bought and sold, and have few standards as to how they must be treated (outside of some minimal abuse and neglect protections).
But while Oregon law and the 4th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution prohibit law enforcement from looking inside a purse without a warrant, last week the court unanimously ruled that a dog may have his blood drawn—and be given some other exams and treatments—without a warrant, under some circumstances.
In so doing, the court granted legal significance to the dog’s “sentience”—his capacity to experience feelings and pain.
“It is really a landmark ruling,” says Attorney Lora Dunn of the Animal Legal Defense Fund—which filed an amicus brief in this case, on behalf of the winning side. “In this specific context, the animal sentience matters.”
This case began in 2010, when an animal cruelty investigator for the Oregon Humane Society was called out to look into reports that a Portland resident, Amanda Newcomb, was beating and starving her dog Juno, and keeping the dog in a kennel for many hours per day.
According to Oregon Live, the investigator found Juno in a bad state, with “no fat on his body.” The dog “was kind of eating at random things in the yard, and trying to vomit.” Newcomb told the investigator that she was out of dog food, and was planning to buy more that night.
Juno was brought to the Oregon Humane Society, where a veterinarian gave him a “body condition score” of 1.5, on a scale of 1 (meaning emaciated) to 9 (meaning overweight).
Then, to find out if Juno was skinny due to malnutrition or for some other reason, the vet drew blood, which revealed no parasites or other condition that would have caused Juno’s poor condition, and led to Newcomb being charged with second-degree animal neglect.
It also led to this important ruling.
At her trial, the defendant tried to suppress the blood-draw evidence. She argued that because Juno is a pet, and pets are property, the blood draw was an illegal warrantless search—just like it would be illegal for investigators to open up a chest of drawers, without a warrant.
The prosecutor argued that the blood draw on Juno was akin to examining a child who is suspected of abuse, which is allowed under the law. The trial court agreed, and Newcomb was convicted.
This decision was reversed by the Court of Appeals, which found that the Oregon Humane Society needed a warrant to draw Juno’s blood.
The Oregon Supreme Court reinstated the trial court’s ruling, that the warrantless blood draw wasn’t prohibited under either Oregon law or the U.S. Constitution.
To get there, the court relied on the Oregon legislature and judiciary both having recognized animals’ special status, somewhere between human beings and tables and chairs—protected from abuse and neglect, but also able to be bought and sold, and killed for food.
“Reflected in those and other laws that govern ownership and treatment of animals is the recognition that animals ‘are sentient beings capable of experiencing pain, stress and fear,’” the court wrote in the unanimous opinion—and so humans’ “dominion” over the animals, the opinion continues, also has nuanced contours, as do the humans’ privacy interests in the animals.
In this case, the court reasoned, “when Dr. Hedge tested Juno’s blood, defendant had lost her rights of dominion and control over Juno, at least on a temporary basis.”
Warning: We’re about to get real nerdy…
We’ll add a little more text from the opinion, because even non-lawyers will find the language and reasoning pretty fascinating (we hope!):
Given the specific context involved here—the lawful seizure of a dog based on probable cause to believe the dog was suffering from malnourishment, followed by drawing and testing the dog’s blood to medically diagnose and treat the dog—we conclude that defendant had no protected privacy interest in Juno’s blood that was invaded by the medical procedures performed. In these circumstances, we agree with the state that Juno is not analogous to, and should not be analyzed as though he were, an opaque inanimate container in which inanimate property or effects were being stored or concealed. Juno’s “contents”—in terms of what was of interest to Dr. Hedge—were the stuff that dogs and other living mammals are made of: organs, bones, nerves, other tissues, and blood. As the prosecutor argued at trial, inside Juno was just “more dog.” The fact that Juno had blood inside was a given; he could not be a living and breathing dog otherwise. And the chemical composition of Juno’s blood was a product of physiological processes that go on inside of Juno, not “information” that defendant placed in Juno for safekeeping or to conceal from view.
Yes, a pet is property, which gives an owner certain rights over the animal. But under Oregon law, pets are not just property—they are living things, who must be afforded basic, minimum care. The obligation to provide that care falls on their owner, or the person who has control over the animal.
“A dog owner simply has no cognizable right, in the name of her privacy, to countermand that obligation,” the court goes on to say. “That conclusion follows with equal or greater force when, as here, the dog is in the state’s lawful protective custody on probable cause that the dog is suffering injury as a result of neglect, at which point the owner has lost her property rights of dominion and control over the dog.”
The Oregon Supreme Court’s ruling does not mean that all the zoo animals must be freed; it does not mean that no more cows can be slaughtered. Regrettably, it does not even mean that all dogs must be provided monthly BarkBox subscriptions.
The court specifically limited the reach of its quite lofty-sounding ruling to these facts: It applies only when a dog or other animal has been lawfully seized, due to the animal’s likely abuse or neglect. And then, “is also confined to the general kind of intrusion that occurred in this case—a medically appropriate procedure for diagnosis and treatment of an animal in ill-health.”
Then, a dog or other animal’s blood may be drawn, or other tests or treatments provided, without violating the owner’s right to privacy or to be free from unlawful search and seizure.
It’s a great start, say those who were hoping for just this outcome.
ALDF’s Lora Dunn tells BarkPost that last week’s ruling means that seized animals can be examined and treated much more quickly than before, since getting a warrant “can take hours.”
“This ruling has very practical implications,” said Dunn.
That’s what the Oregon Humane Society said, too, in a blog post celebrating this victory: “This ruling removes what could have been a major roadblock to cruelty investigations,” wrote the group’s executive director Sharon Harmon.
The implications are bigger than that, as well. Oregon’s animal cruelty prosecutor, Jacob Kamins, told Oregon Live that this case is in fact the third in a series of important Oregon court rulings in the last two years alone.
In one, the court found that 20 starving goats and horses were each individual “victims”of their owner’s neglect. In another, the court upheld the warrantless seizure of a starving horse under an “exigent circumstances” exception to the Fourth Amendment.
If none of these cases alone changes the whole game for animal protection—the three together, at least, show a very promising trend.
“There’s a feeling that the issue of animal welfare is really coming into its own in the criminal justice world,” Kamins said.