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Justice for Juno! Court Rules that Pets aren’t “Property”

Dogs across Oregon are wagging their tags after a landmark ruling last month. The state’s Supreme Court found that dogs are not mere property, but rather “sentient beings capable of experiencing pain, stress, and fear”. As such, they can be examined and treated for medical purposes without a warrant.

It all started with a dog named Juno. In 2010, the Oregon Humane Society (OHS) received a call alleging that Juno was abused, starving, and locked up for hours a day. OHS immediately sent an officer, who found Juno “in a bad state, with no fat on his body”. He was dry-heaving and attempting to eat “random things” in the yard.

The officer seized Juno and delivered him to an OHS veterinarian. Dr. Hedge could immediately discern from the visible ribs and vertebrae that Juno was malnourished. In fact, on a scale of 1 – 9, she rated Juno as 1.5 (emaciated). Less obvious, however, was the cause of Juno’s condition. Was it a parasite, disease, or simply neglect by his owner?

To determine, Dr. Hedge drew a blood sample for laboratory testing. The test “revealed nothing medically wrong with Juno that would have caused him to be thin”. Instead, the blame rested with Juno’s owner, Amanda Newcomb. Newcombe was subsequently charged by with second-degree animal neglect.

Justice served! Well, not yet…Newcombe maintained that Juno was a pet and pets are property. Thus, the drawing of Juno’s blood without a warrant violated her 4th amendment right (against unreasonable searches of her property). In response, the prosecution argued that Juno has a right to medical care and freedom from neglect. Moreover, if it is legal to examine a child for abuse, it should be legal for Juno too.

The trial court sided with the prosecutor and convicted Newcombe. But in 2014, the Oregon Court of Appeals reversed the decision, despite the howls of animal activists. It wasn’t until June 2016 that the Oregon Supreme Court reinstated the original trial court ruling. Victory!

Of course, the court did limit the ruling’s scope. Specifically, the court stated that it applies only to animals that have been seized lawfully on suspicion of abuse or neglect. Furthermore, it only permits “medically appropriate procedures” to diagnose and treat an animal in ill-health.

Regardless, this is a “significant ruling“. It adds “nuanced contours” to humans’ “dominion” over animals and associated privacy rights. At the same time, the ruling “has very practical implications”. According to Lora Dunn of the Animal Legal Defense Fund, it enables seized animals to be examined and treated much more quickly than before, as securing a warrant “can take hours”. The Oregon Humane Society agrees, stating that “This ruling removes what could have been a major roadblock to cruelty investigations”.

Want to learn more or adopt your own little Juno? Contact the Oregon Humane Society, the Animal Legal Defense Fund, or our partners, Animal House Shelter, Caldwell Animal Rescue, Harvest Home Animal Sanctuary, and PAWS New England.