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Oregon Supreme Court Decision Not the Landmark Case Animal Rights Advocates Claim

By Jessica Acito, GR Intern, and Phil M. Guidry, J.D., GR Sr. Policy Analyst

Last week the Oregon Supreme Court handed down a decision in Oregon v. Newcomb regarding the relationship between animal cruelty and a dog’s legal status as personal property.  The court allowed a blood sample, taken from a dog seized without its owner’s permission, to be admitted into evidence. The dog was seized after an animal cruelty investigator visited the owner’s home and determined there was probable cause to charge the owner with second degree animal neglect. More significantly, the Court declared that dogs are not ‘mere property’, but are sentient beings that occupy a special position in people’s hearts and in the law; and even criticized current Oregon law for not correctly reflecting modern roles pets play. While the decision is certainly legally provocative, it may not be quite the landmark that activists are describing.

In response to the taking of the blood sample without consent or a warrant, the owner of the dog claimed that the state had violated Article I, Section 9 of the Oregon Constitution and the 4th Amendment to the US Constitution, both of which protect against unreasonable search and seizure.  The Court determined that the defendant had no protected privacy interest in the dog’s blood that was invaded by the medical procedures performed to determine whether illness caused the dog’s weight loss. The court admitted that dogs are personal property under Oregon law, but that Oregon law also simultaneously limits ownership and possessory rights in animals in ways that it does not for inanimate property.

While this may be the first time the Oregon Court specifically said dogs were not merely personal property, the concept is far from a novel one. Dogs are generally classified as personal property but also have additional protections provided by statute that mandate certain standards of care and possession.  So while a table is strict personal property, a dog is personal property that enjoys additional legal protections.

Animal rights activists celebrating the opinion as a “landmark” seem to be overlooking how narrowly tailored the court’s decision is. In explaining its decision, the court stated that a conclusion that a defendant lacked a protected privacy interest is limited to those specific circumstances where a dog was lawfully seized under probable cause of neglect or abuse.  The court further limited the ruling to include only “medically appropriate” procedures for diagnosis and treatment. It even went on to explicitly emphasize that its decision was limited to the circumstances that this case presented.

At the conclusion of its decision, the Court added that assessing the constitutionally protected interests an owner has in a pet presents difficult questions, ones that will most likely be determined on a case by case basis.  Demonstrating awareness of their limited function, the Court added that they confined themselves to deciding only what was necessary to address the immediate case.  By limiting the precedential value of their decision, the court itself demonstrated that the Newcomb holding is not a landmark animal personhood decision.