The Supreme Judicial Court ruled today that police don't need a warrant to try to save animals in danger of immediate death.
The decision comes in the case of a Lynn woman charged with three counts of animal cruelty when police, responding to a call from her neighbor, found three dogs on her lawn - two dead, one nearly so - and went into her yard to recover the animals without first obtaining a warrant.
The state's highest court said this fell under an exemption to the Fourth Amendment and the similar Article 14 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights that allows warrantless searches and seizures to save a life:
In agreement with a number of courts in other jurisdictions that have considered the issue, we conclude that, in appropriate circumstances, animals, like humans, should be afforded the protection of the emergency aid exception.
In its decision, the court describes the scene in Heather Duncan's front yard on Jan. 11, 2011, after responding to a call from a neighbor:
The neighbor informed the officers that she had gone to the defendant's home to retrieve a borrowed snow shovel; no one responded to her arrival, but she heard a dog barking and looked through or over the privacy fence and saw what she knew to be the defendant's dogs. Two apparently were deceased.
The officers heard a dog "whimpering and very hoarsely and weakly barking as if it had almost lost its voice, noting that it sounded like an animal in distress." In order to get a better view into the yard, they stepped on a nearby snowbank that was several feet in height. Inside the yard, they saw two motionless dogs, apparently frozen and leashed to the fence, partially inside and partially outside a doghouse. A third dog, alive but emaciated, was leashed to the fence and barking. The officers did not see any food or water laid out for the dogs.
Due to the padlocked gate, police were unable to access the front door of the house. Instead, they engaged the siren, emergency lights, and air horn of their police cruiser to alert the residents of their presence, to no avail. One officer also directed another at the police station to use the local water and sewer directory to reach the registered owner of the property. These efforts were unsuccessful. Pursuant to police protocol for handling animal-related emergencies, officers then contacted the fire department to remove the padlock on the gate and enter the yard. After police gained entry to the yard, they contacted animal control; an animal control officer arrived and took custody of the three dogs. All of the responders cleared the premises by 4:56 P.M.
Duncan sought to have the three counts of animal cruelty thrown out because animals did not have the right of an "emergency exception" for constitutional requirements for a search warrant. The judge in her trial then sought guidance from the SJC.
The court set to answer the question of "whether the public interest underlying the emergency aid exception, in facilitating immediate first aid response to those in danger of harm or physical injury, applies with equal force to animals."
The court noted the existence of numerous laws affording aimed at preventing cruelty to animals and noted that in 2012, the legislature passed a law that let judges consider the welfare of pets when consiering whether to issue protective orders.
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." ...
In addition to promoting life-saving measures, the ability to render such assistance vindicates the legislative framework for preventing cruelty to animals, particularly the provision regulating the conditions under which dogs may be kept outside. See G.L. c. 140, § 174E. Indeed, it would be illogical and inconsistent to permit the prosecution of dog owners for exposing their dogs to conditions that "could injure or kill [them]" in ill-equipped yards, G.L. c. 140, § 174E (f ) (1), only after the harm to animal life has taken place, while hindering the ability of police proactively to prevent such injury. Furthermore, the inclusion of animals within the ambit of the emergency aid exception enables trained personnel, such as police or animal control officers, to respond to animal emergencies, rather than lay people. In the absence of such trained professionals rendering care and assistance, untrained citizens may attempt to intervene, potentially causing further harm to the animal, to themselves, or to other members of the community, should an injured animal end up loose on public streets.
We therefore conclude that our prior formulations of the emergency aid exception encompass warrantless searches to protect nonhuman animal life.