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Police can intervene in some animal-neglect cases

Supreme Court: Warrant not needed under 'exigent circumstances'


The Oregon Supreme Court has upheld the authority of police to step in without a warrant to save neglected animals.

The court upheld the 2011 convictions of two women in Douglas County on charges of animal neglect and abuse. The women were arrested in 2010 after a sheriff’s deputy, responding to complaints by neighbors, saw a starving horse on the women’s property.

The high court, in a decision written by Justice Martha Walters and released Thursday, offered a different legal basis for its conclusion than the Oregon Court of Appeals did in upholding the convictions in 2013.

Still, Walters wrote, the court upheld the authority of police to intervene when an officer reasonably believes it is necessary to “render immediate aid to persons … who have suffered, or who are imminently threatened with suffering, serious physical harm or injury.”

A previous decision by the court held that animals can be considered “persons” under certain circumstances.

The officer, who had specialized training in animal husbandry, went up a driveway, seized the horse and took it to a veterinarian. The horse survived an additional year but died in 2011.

The women, Teresa Ann Dicke and Linda Diane Fessenden, had moved in Douglas County Circuit Court to suppress the evidence from the seizure. They argued that the seizure violated the state and federal constitutional guarantees against unreasonable searches and seizures.

Judge George Ambrosini denied the motion. A jury convicted Dicke of one count of first-degree animal neglect and one count of first-degree animal abuse, and Fessenden of one count of second-degree animal neglect.

Dicke was sentenced to eight months in jail — her sentences on the two counts ran concurrently — and Fessenden to 90 days.

On appeal in 2013, the Oregon Court of Appeals upheld their convictions on the basis of an emergency-aid exception to the ban against warrantless searches and seizures. The exception does not require police to have probable cause that a crime is being committed before they intervene.

Dicke and Fessenden appealed to the Oregon Supreme Court, where the state argued that the seizure should have been held legal either under an emergency-aid exception or an exception for “exigent circumstances,” which does require police to have probable cause before they intervene.

Dicke and Fessenden also argued that Oregon law regards animals as property, not subject to exceptions from unreasonable-search bans, unlike human life.

The high court acknowledged that animals are property, but that police had the authority to intervene because of probable cause that a crime was being committed. It chose not to decide the case on whether police could intervene on the basis of emergency aid.

“Our determination that the officer has probable cause to believe that a crime was in progress assures us that the officer acted in a circumstance in which the Oregon Legislature intended to protect the horse,” Walters wrote for the court.

peterwong@PortlandTribune.com

(503) 385-4899

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