The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) ruled on Friday that the emergency aid exception to search warrants applies to animals as well as humans. The ruling was in response to a reported question in the case Commonwealth vs. Heather Duncan, which is being prosecuted by the Essex District Attorney's Office.
On January 8, 2011, Lynn Police, in response to a neighbor’s call, entered the defendant’s front yard without a warrant and seized three dogs that had been left outside in harsh winter weather. Two of the dogs were dead and the third was severely malnourished. The defendant was charged with three counts of animal cruelty.
Subsequently, the defendant filed a motion to suppress evidence gathered as a result of the warrantless search. The motion was allowed, but the judge reported the question, “Does the ‘pure emergency’ exception to the warrant requirement extend to animals?” to the SJC.
In his argument before the SJC, Essex Assistant District Attorney Paul C. Wagoner stated that, “The conduct alleged in this case, that occurred in the defendant’s front yard in full view of the neighborhood was prohibited. Therefore it was permissible for the officers to act to save the life of the last living dog."
Essex District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett said, “Dating back to colonial times, animal cruelty and neglect have been prohibited. This ruling makes clear that police may respond to an emergency in which an animal requires immediate protection or is in imminent danger of physical harm while still respecting the boundaries of the Fourth Amendment against unreasonable search and seizures.”
The case will return to Lynn District Court to be tried.
A broad coalition of 19 law enforcement and animal welfare organizations filed briefs supporting the Commonwealth’s position in the case. In addition, the Animal Legal Defense Fund recently recognized District Attorney Blodgett as one of America’s Top Ten Animal Defenders.