Metro

SJC: Police do not need search warrants to rescue animals endangered by humans

The state’s highest court ruled for the first time today that police can legally enter private property without a search warrant to rescue endangered animals, a decision that extends the same authority long used by police to save the lives of human beings.

“The question is one of first impression for this court,’’ Justice Barbara Lenk wrote today. “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.’’

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Lenk wrote that the Massachusetts has a large number of civil and criminal laws on the books that are aimed at protecting the health of animals from being harmed by humans.

“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,’’ she wrote.

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But she cautioned that not every circumstance where animals appear to face threats will justify police bypassing constitutional protections against government intrusion onto private property guaranteed by both the state and federal constitutions.

“The emergency aid doctrine remains a narrow exception to the warrant requirement. Its application to nonhuman animals does not expand the exception or alter the essential framework for determining when a warrantless police search of the home is permissible under it,’’ she wrote.

“As in instances involving humans, there must be objectively reasonable grounds to believe that an emergency exists, and police conduct following entry must be reasonable under the circumstances,’’ the court concluded.

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The ruling came in the case of a Lynn woman, Heather M. Duncan, who was being prosecuted for three counts of animal cruelty after police found the bodies of two dogs, still chained, in the backyard of Duncan’s home on Jan. 8, 2011. A third dog, also chained, was emaciated and barely alive.

According to court records, police did not wait to get a warrant, but instead entered Duncan’s backyard after Lynn firefighters had cut the padlock off a security fence that blocked access to the property so they could rescue the surviving animal.

A judge suppressed the evidence about the dogs during the animal cruelty prosecution on the grounds that Massachusetts law does not give police the authority to enter private property without a warrant to save animals.

The judge then asked the SJC if the decision was the legally correct, and today the SJC said that it was.

John R. Ellement can be reached at ellement@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @JREbosglobe.
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