What the cops saw behind a house in Lynn, Mass., on a cold, snowy day in January 2011 was heartbreaking.
They’d been summoned by a neighbor who reported seeing two dead dogs behind a fence at the house next door. The officers climbed a snowbank to have a look into that yard.
Two chained up dogs lay on the frozen ground, not moving. A third one, also chained, was emaciated, barking feebly and in obvious distress. There was no food or water. Without immediate action, that dog was done for. The officers didn’t wait for a warrant – they acted. Now the highest court in the state says they did the right thing.
Rescue Leads to Criminal Cruelty Charges Against Owner
A padlocked gate obstructed the front door to the property. Officers first attempted to contact the homeowner, Heather Duncan, in as many ways as they could think of. They tried the telephone, blared their siren, flashed their emergency lights, and used their vehicle’s loudspeaker. Nothing worked.
Realizing the situation was critical for the last dog, the police called in the fire department to cut off the padlock on the gate, as their protocol for animal-related emergencies required. Animal Control removed the dead dogs and took custody of the third.
Based on what the officers found that day, the state charged Heather Duncan with three counts of animal cruelty. Duncan’s attorney moved to suppress the observations of the police and the physical evidence they obtained based on the lack of a warrant to enter Duncan’s property.
During an evidentiary hearing, the district court was inclined to agree that authorities had no right to enter the property, but requested the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) of Massachusetts to opine on this question of law before the trial could continue: “Does the ‘pure emergency’ exception to the warrant requirement extend to animals?”
What‘s the “Emergency Aid Exception“ About?
To be able to execute a legal search on private property, the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution requires that authorities first obtain a judicial warrant based on probable cause, except in certain limited circumstances.
One of those exceptional situations is when officers enter a building or residence to assist in an emergency. Evidence of criminal activity observed or obtained during such a warrantless entry can be considered admissible in court.
In an “emergency aid” situation, the purpose of police entry is not to investigate criminal activity but to render emergency assistance to protect life. Which types of life are included in this exception was the issue at the crux of the decision in the Massachusetts case.
Animal advocates were thrilled when the SJC unanimously held in favor of the actions taken by the police. The court stated that “in appropriate circumstances, animals, like humans, should be afforded the protection of the emergency aid exception.”
The SJC held (here quoting existing case law):
In light of the public policy in favor of minimizing animal suffering in a wide variety of contexts, permitting warrantless searches to protect nonhuman animal life fits coherently within the existing emergency aid exception to the warrant requirement, intended to facilitate official response to an “immediate need for assistance for the protection of life or property”… It is therefore reasonable “to render aid to relatively vulnerable and helpless animals when faced with people willing or even anxious to mistreat them.”
The ruling also means the evidence observed that day should not be suppressed in Duncan’s criminal cruelty case on the basis of the lack of a search warrant. Watch a video of the hearing at this link.
The commonwealth’s Attorney General, the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association, the American Humane Society, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Animal Rescue League of Boston had all urged the SJC to come to this conclusion.
“This is big for us,” Cheryl Rudolph, president of the Animal Control Officers of Massachusetts, told the Boston Globe. “There are times you just need to go in there and get the animal. Now we can respond and do what’s needed right away.”
Why Not Everyone Agrees With This Outcome
Some defense attorneys believe police will misuse the emergency aid exception to get access to homes they want to investigate without first obtaining a warrant.
“How do you tell what a distressful meow is or a distressful bark?” asked defense attorney Travis J. Jacobs during the hearing. “You can’t then have the cat or the dog come in to court and testify that ‘Yes, I was in distress. I was injured and I needed aid.’”
It’s not such a hard thing to determine. Most of us can recognize the sound of an injured or frightened animal. In this case, the officers actually saw the dogs and their condition. Two dead, frozen dog carcasses and a skin-and-bones survivor are fairly convincing evidence that immediate intervention is required.
Will some cop somewhere abuse this authority in order to seek evidence of criminal activity? Probably. Not everyone does what they’re supposed to do. That possibility doesn’t mean this decision is a mistake, however. For helpless animals in distress, this form of protection is long overdue.
“The intent of the officer has to be to go and rescue the animals,” Wayne Sampson, executive director of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association, told the Boston Globe. ”The court has made it very clear there has to be some reasonable evidence that the dog was actually in physical danger. We can’t just walk in. That’s not what they are saying.”
Massachusetts just joined 13 other states – including the District of Columbia, Montana, Rhode Island, Vermont and New York — in deciding that the emergency aid exception applies to animals as well as to humans.
Bravo, Bay State. You did the right thing. The rest of you states, get with the program. When animals need urgent, emergency response, allow your authorities to provide it — and to prosecute the perpetrators afterward.
Photo credit (all images): Thinkstock