The Rule of Reason Prevails—Emergency Aid Exception Applies to Save the Life of Animals

Posted by Scott Heiser, ALDF's Director of Criminal Justice Program on September 26, 2013

The Oregon Court of Appeals just issued an excellent opinion supporting law enforcement’s work protecting animals. In State v. Fessenden/Dicke, the court held that the emergency aid exception to the warrant requirement applies not just to humans but also includes animals. In so holding, the court fell back on the basic rule of “reasonableness” that is at the core of the Fourth Amendment and Article 1, section 9 of the Oregon Constitution.

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The facts of this case are both tragic and painfully common. An officer responded to a neighbor’s complaint of a skinny horse on the suspects’ land and found a profoundly emaciated animal. In this case, fortunately, the investigating officer was a seasoned veteran and knew from his training and experience that the horse was suffering and in need of immediate help (e.g., body score of 1 [very low], protruding bones and ribs, weak on her feet, painful and difficult urinating). Further, the officer knew that without immediate help, this horse would die a painful death. Based on the officer’s training and experience, he reasonably believed that emergency action was required to save this horse, so he seized her and took her to a veterinarian. The horse survived.

At trial and on appeal, the defendants argued that the officer needed a search warrant, claiming that, “a danger to an animal’s life is not the kind of emergency that is necessary to diminish constitutional provisions.” The court would have none of that. Citing the Nix case, the court rejected the defendants’ argument and held that the broad scope of legislative protection afforded to animals under Oregon’s criminal law support the conclusion that it is constitutionally reasonable to render emergency aid to a suffering animal. Specifically, the court held “that a warrantless search or seizure is justified when law enforcement officers have an objectively reasonable belief, based on articulable facts, that the search or seizure is necessary to render immediate aid or assistance to animals that have suffered, or which are imminently threatened with suffering, serious physical injury or cruel death, unless that injury or death is being inflicted lawfully [e.g., hunting, medical research or humane slaughter].”

Oregon is not the first state to confront this issue and rule that the life of an animal justifies application of the emergency aid (or exigent circumstances) exception to the warrant requirement. Other states that have so ruled include California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Montana, New York, Ohio, Texas, Vermont, and Wisconsin. In the federal system, the Seventh and Tenth Circuits have also similarly ruled.

The same issue is pending before the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts—ALDF (joined by Animal Rescue League of Boston, National District Attorneys Association, and Association of Prosecuting Attorneys) filed an amicus brief in that case. We look forward to Massachusetts joining Oregon in ruling that a warrantless search or seizure is justified when law enforcement officers have an objectively reasonable belief, based on articulable facts, that the search or seizure is necessary to render immediate aid or assistance to animals.


8 thoughts on “The Rule of Reason Prevails—Emergency Aid Exception Applies to Save the Life of Animals

  1. Nancy carlson says:

    Excellent forward progress! Thank you for the great news Scott Heiser and thank you for all of your hard work.

    1. Lynda Haynes says:

      Seems as though the Oregon Criminal Appeals Court got it just right with their ruling of The Rule of Reason Prevails – Emergency Aid Exeption Applies to Save the Life of Animals. Hopefully, the owner of this horse was charged criminally with a felony for abuse and neglect. If justice prevails!

  2. Jacqueline Fernandez says:

    Wonderful news, thank you Mr. Heiser for all of your hard work. Hopefully one day all States will join Oregon in ruling that the life of an animal justifies application of the emergency aid. No animal should ever suffer.

  3. susan hawkes says:

    Wow! What a step forward in the protection of those who can suffer but cannot speak. Thank you, Oregon Court of Appeals!

  4. Janet in Cambridge MA says:

    I hope Mass comes through for the animals, too. I’m very worried about the groundswell to limit or modify recently passed anti-BSL legislation.

  5. penny says:

    One giant leap for animals!!! How can you not help an animal that is being abused!!If you would not like to be treated like that,don’t do it to an animal!!! STOP ANIMAL ABUSE!!

  6. Kat says:

    Finally. The use of common sense
    provided expedited services!!!

  7. Sarah says:

    We in Massachusetts are hopeful we will join the list of jurisdictions recognizing this important need. The excellent compelling amicus brief ALDF filed will help guide the Justices to reach the right and common sense decision.