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Ebola, Dogs, and the 4th, 5th, and 14th Amendments

Ebola patient Teresa Romero Ramos’ dog, Excalibur, was taken from his apartment by Spanish health officials who obtained a court order to seize Excalibur and have him put down. This prompted outrage across the globe and the signing of a petition on Change.org by 400,000+ protestors seeking a stay of execution for Excalibur. Late last week, Excalibur was euthanized by Spanish authorities over fears that the 12 year old dog may have become infected with the Ebola virus.

On the heels of Spanish authorities euthanizing Excalibur, we learned today that the dog of a Dallas health care worker who contracted Ebola will not be put down. The mayor of Dallas indicated that the dog will be sent to a new location and await the recovery of its owner there.  So why did authorities in the United States spare the dog in Dallas while Spanish authorities did not?  And what possibility is there that officials in this country could exercise the same authority as those in Spain?

According to the World Organization for Animal Health, there is no evidence that pets, such as Excalibur, play an active role in the transmission of Ebola to humans. Despite evidence to the contrary, Spanish authorities took what they deem to be protective action in the absence of complete scientific proof of a risk.  In the European Union, the application of the precautionary principle has been made a statutory requirement in some areas of law.

In the United States, dogs are viewed as personal property. Accordingly, if the government wishes to deprive someone of their property, their power to do so is limited by both state and federal constitutions.  The 4th Amendment protects individuals against unreasonable searches and seizures meaning that if the government is going to deprive someone of their property (i.e. their dog) the search/seizure needs to be reasonable and supported by probable cause.  Under the 5th and 14th Amendments, if the government is going to force an individual to divest ownership of their dog and forfeit it without compensation, it is going to be considered a taking and require both a notice and a hearing (although requirements may vary by state).

The laws and personal property rights regarding dogs most often come into play in this country when there are cases of animal cruelty, animal hoarding, or in dangerous dog type scenarios. Taking a dog and placing it under quarantine would seem to be the more sensible approach as there can be a great deal learned in situations such as the one unfolding in Dallas and the previous one in Madrid, including whether dogs can be carriers and/or transmitters of infectious diseases such as Ebola.  That being said, it remains a distinct possibility that should the courts determine that a public interest (namely public health and preventing the spread of a deadly, infectious disease) outweighs an individual’s private interest in their property, we could see a similar scenario unfold in this country.

Abigail Murray and Michael Rouvina are Michigan attorneys who focus their law practice on Animal Law, as well as Business Law, Family Law, Probate/Estate Planning, and Alternative Dispute Resolution at the law firm of Murray & Rouvina, PLC in Kalamazoo, MI.