The Oregon Supreme Court has ruled a Douglas County sheriff’s deputy was justified in August 2010 when he went on private property without a warrant and rescued Grace, a starving horse whose recovery was followed by thousands on Facebook.
The unanimous decision affirmed rulings by the Court of Appeals and Douglas County Circuit Court that Animal Control Deputy Lee Bartholomew acted lawfully when he took the horse to a veterinarian for treatment.
Bartholomew reported that he thought he was on firm legal grounds because he believed the horse was in imminent danger.
Grace gained attention worldwide through a Facebook page set up after her rescue. She had more than 6,000 fans when she died in July 2011 at the age of 28 from the lingering effects of starvation.
Teresa Ann Dicke, 53, and Linda Diane Fessenden, 52, shared ownership of Grace during the abuse.
Dicke was found guilty by a Douglas County jury of first-degree animal neglect and first-degree animal abuse, and sentenced to eight months in jail. Fessenden was found guilty of second-degree animal neglect and sentenced to 90 days in jail. Both were barred from owning domestic animals for five years.
The women argued Bartholomew violated the Oregon Constitution and Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution when he seized their property without a warrant and that he couldn’t prove the horse was in imminent danger.
They moved to have the evidence suppressed, but it was denied by Circuit Judge George Ambrosini.
The appeals court concluded Bartholomew had grounds under the emergency aid exception, which allows an officer to enter property without a warrant to end suffering or prevent harm to someone. The court concluded the protection extended to a horse.
Fessenden and Dicke appealed again, arguing Grace was property and that the exception shouldn’t apply to property.
The Supreme Court agreed the horse was property, but found that the exception applies in “circumstances that require swift action to prevent harm to persons or property.”
Fessenden’s attorney, Deputy Public Defender Elizabeth Daily, said in a written statement that her client was disappointed in the court’s ruling.
She said Fessenden is “concerned the court’s opinion does not establish a narrow and workable rule that properly balances” the society’s interest in animal welfare and a person’s constitutional right to privacy.
“The ruling excuses police from obtaining a warrant in (a) broad array of situations involving any animal protected under the animal welfare laws, which includes all mammals, bird, reptiles, amphibians, and fish,” the statement reads. “Using modern technology, officers in the field should be able to seek a judge’s approval quickly and efficiently before entering private property to assist an animal.”
Efforts to reach Dicke’s Portland attorney, Rankin Johnson IV, were unsuccessful.
Dicke owned property in the 3500 block of Willis Creek Road outside Dillard, where Grace, then known as Molly, was kept.
Fessenden, a close friend of Dicke’s, lived in a trailer on the property. She cared for the horse for about a year, tending to her special dietary needs. Fessenden left the property in early 2010 and stopped caring for Grace.
Grace was an older horse and couldn’t eat or digest hay, like other horses. She needed pellets soaked in mush twice a day.
Neighbors called the sheriff’s office to report the horse appeared to be starving.
Bartholomew was dispatched to investigate and found the horse in a pasture in plain view from a driveway shared by Dicke and her neighbors.
He reported that the horse’s backbone protruded and her ribs were visible. She had no visible fat in her shoulders, and she was swaying a little bit, which Bartholomew said he recognized as signs of emaciation.
Grace was also straining to urinate, a sign of kidney failure.
“(The horse) was literally the thinnest horse I’ve seen that was still on its feet,” Bartholomew testified.
He also said he was “afraid it was going to fall over and not be able to get back up.”
Bartholomew said he thought it would take between four to eight hours to obtain a warrant to go onto Dicke’s property and that the horse might fall or die within that time.
A veterinarian determined the horse was starved for about six months before it was rescued.
Darla Clark, founder and director of Strawberry Mountain Mustangs, nursed the horse back to health. Grace was euthanized about a year later due to health problems that an autopsy found were related to having been malnourished.
• Reporter Jessica Prokop can be reached at 541-957-4209 and firstname.lastname@example.org.