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Legal Docket: A girl and her goat


WORLD Radio - Legal Docket: A girl and her goat

Fourth amendment, due process, and qualified immunity come to blows after a pet goat is seized for slaughter

NICK EICHER, HOST: It’s Monday morning, August 14th and you’re listening to The World and Everything in It from WORLD Radio. Good morning! I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. It’s time now for Legal Docket—summer-time edition, where we take advantage of the laid-back court schedule to delve into disputes over constitutional rights that are brewing in the lower courts.

Today, the case of a little girl and her goat.

In court documents, the little girl is identified only as EL. This story revolves around this nine-year-old girl and we’ll refer to her a lot, so we’ll call her by her surname Long, as her mother, Jessica Long, brought a lawsuit on her behalf.

EICHER: Here are the facts of the case: Last year, Long’s mother bought her a goat for a 4-H livestock project.

Long named the goat Cedar. She fed him, groomed him, and took care of him all in the run up to show him at the county fair.

No surprise, it didn’t take much time for Long and Cedar to bond.

The relationship between the two was not unlike a child and a dog.

Vanessa Shakeeb is a lawyer who represents Long:

SHAKEEB: The purpose, according to 4H, is to teach children about livestock. Some children go through the program, no problem. Other children go through the program and it's emotionally disturbing. And so for those children, they wish to exit the program. Our client wished to exit the program. And that should be —maximum— a property dispute, a civil dispute at most.

EICHER: In June last year, Long showed Cedar at the Shasta District Fair. Along the way that day, Long came to understand that the goat would be slaughtered for meat. She became so distraught that her mother sought to terminate participation in the auction right away, before the bidding on animals began.

REICHARD: But the fair officials wouldn’t allow it.

Someone bid on the goat. As Long had recently lost three grandparents, her mother couldn’t bear more grief added onto that. So the mother retrieved Cedar and took him to Sonoma County—a five-hour drive away.

The livestock manager at the fair was dismissive of Long’s distress over the goat. Shakeeb tells what happened next:

SHAKEEB: County fair officials reached out to my client threatening her with a felony. It's absolutely outrageous to threaten someone with a felony in a purely civil contractual dispute. We're talking 60 bucks and damages. Some time passes, everything goes quiet, about a week and a half or two weeks. And then suddenly, around 6 pm In the evening, sheriff's deputies get a warrant. It's quite a lengthy warrant. There's language in there authorizing the breaching of entryways to go and get Cedar. They travel in the dark of night, they see Cedar from an address not on the warrant. And ultimately, they turn Cedar over for slaughter without any notice or due process to the little girl.

REICHARD: Cedar the goat is long dead now.

But Long argues this isn’t over. For one thing, ownership never transferred to anyone else. So the goat was always hers.

Shakeeb points to the fundamentals of contract law:

SHAKEEB: At the outset, as a minor, our client can disaffirm any contract that was formed. But you are correct that these fair rules state that the vendor is the owner through the show date. There's other information which states that the owner is liable for the animal up until I believe the time of slaughter. And so the owners bear the risk of the animal throughout this program, which reiterates the fact that my client in fact owned Cedar.

REICHARD: Worst-case scenario, as Shakeeb mentioned, is the fair would be out about $60—the fair’s share of the $900 bid on the goat.

Long’s mother offered to pay any and all money damages, and the man who bid on Cedar agreed to forgo any right to the animal.

SHAKEEB: There was truly no conflict here. No reason to escalate this into what went down like a drug bust.

REICHARD: I contacted the Shasta County Sheriff’s Department and the Fair officials as well as their attorneys. No response.

But the fair released a statement early on saying that it couldn’t make an exception for Cedar, because then kids would learn they don’t have to follow the rules set up for the 4-H project.

EICHER: Long’s position lays out multiple causes of action. Among them: fourth amendment due process violations, fourteenth amendment illegal search and seizure, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

In court documents, the county admits its sheriff’s deputies drove hundreds of miles to get the goat. But they say they didn’t need a warrant for that address because the property owner had given them consent to enter the property.

The county’s primary defense is an affirmative defense: yes, some of those facts may have indeed occurred, but they don’t matter, because its deputies are covered by qualified immunity. That’s the doctrine that protects state and local officials from individual liability unless the official acted in violation of a clearly established constitutional right.

REICHARD: Shakeeb says this case fits into that “unless” exception. Therefore the officials are liable:

SHAKEEB: And to turn Cedar over without notifying the parties that they know have an interest in Cedar was in violation of their constitutional rights.

REICHARD: As such, she argues, the sheriff had a duty to retain the goat as evidence, give notice to the family, and allow them their day in court.

SHAKEEB: Our client was very clear that her daughter had been through so much, and she wanted to spare her daughter additional heartbreak. I mean, the human element here. It's unbelievable that there was not more compassion for this little girl and instead, the defendants here broke the law to terrorize her, to hunt down her beloved pet goat. The sheriff here acted as judge, jury and executioner and this has been a very traumatizing event for the family.

REICHARD: The New York Times covered this story back in April. Opinion writer Nicholas Kristof observed: “Cedar is a reminder that the bright line we draw between farm animals and our pet dogs and cats is an arbitrary one.” Kristof grew up on a farm that raised goats, pigs, and geese.

He came to see these animals differently, and today doesn’t eat them— for the same reason, he wrote, that he doesn’t eat beagles. He wrote what the little girl told him: “If they knew Cedar the way I knew Cedar, they wouldn’t have done that.”

Beyond the heart-rending aspects of this story of a girl and her pet—government overreach, qualified immunity, contract law, and the treatment of animals all come together in this one dispute.

It’s set for trial next year, in October.

And that’s this week’s Legal Docket.

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