Opinion:City of Oklahoma City v. Fondren, 2022 OK CIV APP 17
Subject matter:Civil and Criminal Procedure
Date Decided:April 28, 2022
Trial Court:District Court of Oklahoma County
Route to this Court:The City of Oklahoma City filed this civil proceeding to require a bond for the care or forfeiture of fourteen exotic parrot-like birds seized from Defendant during a warrantless search of his property. The City appealed the district court’s order granting Defendant’s motion to quash and/or suppress that evidence.
Facts:An inspector from the Department of Health and an Animal Welfare Officer investigated Defendant’s home upon complaints of bad smells and strange noises emanating from his garage. The home appeared to be abandoned, so both of the agents with the assistance of the fire department and the police entered Defendant’s home. Within the home, they found hundreds of cockroaches in the living room and kitchen area. They then found many more cockroaches in the garage where they discovered fourteen parrot-like birds who had been left in the garage. Oklahoma City filed a bond/forfeiture against Defendant under 21 O.S. 2011 §§ 1680 through1692, case no. CV-2019-1530. The City then charged Defendant with a felony for animal cruelty under section 1685 of the same statute (Animal Facilities Protection Act) in case no. CF-2019-1530.

In the civil proceeding regarding the bond/forfeiture, Defendant filed a motion to quash/suppress the evidence–fourteen birds–because they were discovered in a warrantless search that violated his constitutional rights.
Standard of Review:The Court treated the City’s motion to reconsider as a motion for new trial pursuant to Horizons, Inc. v. Keo Leasing Co., 1984 OK 24, ¶ 4. The District Court’s decision to deny or grant a motion for a new trial is to be reviewed for abuse of discretion. Smith v. City of Stillwater, 2014 OK 42, ¶ 11. This case also involved the interpretation of statutes and their application to the facts, which constitute legal issues which received de novo review. Pan v. Bane, 2006 OK 57, ¶ 5.
Analysis:The first issue brought by the City’s appeal was whether the Court of Civil Appeals had the jurisdiction to hear the case. The case CV-2019-1530 was filed with the civil court because the statutory provision invoked was 21 O.S. 2011 §1680.4 of the Animal Facilities Protection Act. This statute is located in the penal code of the State and is the same one under which Defendant was charged with a felony. But the Court determined that mere location in the penal code does not mean with certainty that the statute is criminal law. The Court found that the Legislative intent of section 1680.4 was to protect animals from abuse and neglect. Also, a bond may be issued independent of the innocence or guilt of the offending party and a criminal proceeding. Just as forfeitures pursuant to the Uniform Controlled Dangerous Substances Act is civil in nature, the bond or forfeiture in this case is civil in nature. The Court of Civil Appeals had jurisdiction to hear the case.

In its argument, the City suggested that it was improper for the district court to hear a motion to quash or suppress evidence in a civil case where there is a parallel criminal case between the same parties with the same facts and the same evidence. Therefore, the motion should have been heard in the criminal case. The Court refuted that argument because it pointed out that the City pursued the civil bond/forfeiture proceeding based on the evidence obtained during the warrantless search and seizure. The City’s argument deprived Defendant of his guaranteed right in the Oklahoma Constitution to protection from warrantless search and seizure. Also, the district courts of the State have been given broad jurisdictional reach with which it can hear all kinds of cases in its several divisional compartments. Jernigan v. Jernigan, 2006 OK 22, ¶ 16.

The City then invoked the exigent circumstances in its argument, saying that the warrantless search was reasonable under the circumstances because there was an imminent danger to the health and welfare, and that it was covered by the list of exceptions under Article 2, § 30 of the Oklahoma Constitution. But the exclusions receive the very rigid application when a house is involved in a search. Turner v. Lawton, 1986 OK 51, ¶ 17. The City argued that because bird sounds were heard from outside the garage, among the smells of other chemicals on the premises, it was reasonable to enter Defendant’s property without a warrant. The Court emphasized testimony from the health department inspector in which he said that his reason for being there was to investigate a public health nuisance and that the surrounding circumstances and condition of the home required further investigation. Thus, his reason to enter was not the sound of distressed birds. Therefore, the Court concluded that the City failed to show the existence of “imminent danger” necessary to justify a warrantless search and seizure. The inspector testified that they in general have not been instructed to seek warrants if there’s a public health nuisance readily apparent on visits. This testimony was deemed to run contrary to the City’s Municipal Code and the City failed to demonstrate that seeking to obtain a warrant would have obstructed the purpose of the search.
Outcome:The district court’s order granting Defendant’s motion to suppress evidence and denying the City’s motion to reconsider are affirmed.
Vote:3-0. Hixon, P.J., Barnes, J., and Fischer, C.J. concur.
Other: N/A