Oregon Supreme Court rules for welfare of seized animals

July 20, 2016
 by Zarah Hedge, DVM, MPH & Emily Davidsohn, JD


In 2011, I was working at the Oregon Humane Society when I met a dog named Juno. After receiving a report from the public, one of the organization’s humane investigators had seized Juno on suspicion of neglect and brought him back to OHS to be evaluated by a veterinarian. I performed a thorough physical examination and, aside from having an emaciated body condition score (1.5 BCS using the Purina 1/9 scale), I did not find anything abnormal. In order to determine if Juno was emaciated because of starvation or because of an underlying medical condition, and as part of a complete veterinary forensics evaluation, I needed to perform further diagnostics. I took blood and fecal samples for analysis and started Juno on a feeding plan, and also monitored his weight twice a week while under our care. All of the laboratory tests were normal and Juno consistently gained weight over the course of several weeks indicating that his emaciated body condition was a result of inadequate nutrition. The owner of the dog was charged with animal neglect in the second degree.

Prior to the trial date, the defendant moved to suppress the laboratory test results and argued that the taking of the blood samples constituted an illegal search and seizure of her property (in this case, the dog, Juno). The defendant claimed that without having a warrant to draw the blood, I had violated both the Oregon Constitution and the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution. The circuit court judge denied the motion and the laboratory evidence was presented at trial. Based on the evidence and the testimony given at trial, a jury found the defendant guilty of animal neglect in the second degree.

After the trial, the defendant appealed her conviction, arguing again that the taking and testing of Juno’s blood was unlawful due to her privacy interest in Juno. In 2014, the Oregon Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s ruling, stating that “the veterinarian, acting on behalf of the state, conducted a warrantless search of the dog by extracting and testing its blood—an act that constituted a physical invasion of defendant’s property and exposed otherwise concealed information about the dog that served as evidence of a crime.”1

The State of Oregon filed a petition for review of the Court of Appeals’ decision to the Oregon Supreme Court. It took two years before all of the documents were filed and arguments were heard by the Oregon Supreme Court. During those two years, law enforcement agencies were restricted from removing anything from the inside of an animal for evidentiary purposes in a criminal case without a warrant or an exception to a warrant. Oregon veterinarians were hesitant to conduct the necessary tests for diagnostics and treatment of seized animals out of fear of jeopardizing the outcome of a criminal case involving the animal victim.

On June 16, 2016 the Oregon Supreme Court issued its decision, reversing the Court of Appeals and confirming that there was no search and seizure violation in taking the blood sample from Juno.2 While animals are legally considered property, the Court noted that under the Oregon statutory code they are also “sentient beings capable of experiencing pain, stress and fear.”3 The Court concluded that Juno was not analogous to a closed container or any other object that might contain evidence and should not be analyzed as such. The Court pointed out that Oregon law prohibits humans from treating animals in ways that they are free to treat other forms of property.4 

What does all this mean from a veterinary and forensic standpoint? Basically, in Oregon, there is no requirement for investigators to obtain a separate warrant before a veterinarian can perform diagnostic tests when evaluating and treating a lawfully seized animal. As veterinarians and medical professionals, we can continue to perform the necessary tests and treat abused or neglected animals under our care and know that the information we obtain can be used as evidence in criminal cases. As for veterinarians in other states, I would recommend that we always uphold our medical and ethical duty to treat the patient regardless of any evidentiary concerns.