Commonwealth v. Duncan, 467 Mass. 746 (2014)
On a “bleak, snowy, and freezing” January day, a neighbor went to retrieve a borrowed shovel from Heather Duncan’s residence; although no one was home and the gate was locked, she observed two dead dogs in Duncan’s yard and heard a third dog barking. Responding to the neighbor’s subsequent call, police officers heard a dog whimpering as if in distress. Stepping on a tall, nearby snowbank and gazing over Duncan’s six-foot privacy fence, they saw two dogs who were apparently frozen and a third dog “alive but emaciated”—they couldn’t see any food or water left out for the dogs. The yard’s gate was padlocked, so officers tried numerous ways to contact the homeowner, to no avail. The officers then contacted the fire department, which removed the padlock from the gate, and animal control took custody of the dogs—in total, police were on scene for less than two hours.
II. Procedural History
Heather Duncan was charged with three counts of animal cruelty under G.L. c. 272, § 77. The defendant filed a motion to suppress the observations by police and any physical evidence, and after an evidentiary hearing the judge allowed the motion, stating “[o]ur courts have not as yet applied the emergency exception to animals.” Under Rule 34 of the Massachusetts Rules of Criminal Procedure, the judge reported the question of law, and trial was continued pending the resolution of the question.
III. Question Presented
Whether the emergency aid exception to the warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment and Article 14 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights extends to “police action undertaken to render emergency assistance to animals.”
IV. Reasoning and Analysis
The SJC first reviewed the emergency aid doctrine, which the Court stated was a narrow exception. A warrantless entry must meet two strict requirements: (1) “there must be objectively reasonable grounds to believe that an emergency exists”; and (2) “the conduct of the police following the entry must be reasonable under the circumstances.” There must be an “‘exigent circumstance’ that obviates the need for a warrant,” and “[t]he need to protect or preserve life or avoid serious injury is justification for what would be otherwise illegal absent an exigency or emergency.” Probable cause is not necessary in emergency aid situations because the police action is not the investigation of criminal activity.
Next, the Court questioned whether the underlying public interest in the emergency aid exception applies equally to nonhuman animals. The SJC reviewed legislative enactments and policies, and found that Massachusetts “statutes evince a focus on the prevention of both intentional and neglectful animal cruelty.” Furthermore, the Court wrote, it would be illogical to punish dog owners after-the-fact for exposing their dogs to conditions that would seriously injure or kill them while not allowing police to prevent said activity.
The SJC held that “under both the Fourth Amendment and [Article] 14, the exception permits the police in certain circumstances ‘to enter a home without a warrant when they have an objectively reasonable basis to believe that there may be [an animal] inside who is injured or in imminent danger of physical harm.’”
V. The Case’s Impact
The SJC is not the only court of last resort to conclude similarly. Additionally, although the exception now applies to nonhuman animals, the Court clarified that the ruling “does not expand the exception or alter the essential framework for determining when a warrantless police search of the home is permissible under it.” Going forward, factors to consider include whether humans caused the harm, the species of the animal, the privacy interest at issue, the efforts to obtain consent of the property owner prior to the intrusion, and the intrusion’s extent. In sum, “[t]he reasonableness of the search must be determined on a case-by-case basis upon consideration of the totality of the circumstances.”