Friday, June 25, 2010

Search Warrants and Animal Cruelty

A California Appellate Court recently joined several other jurisdictions throughout the United States by ruling that the "exigent circumstances" doctrine, which creates an exception to the Fourth Amendment requirement that a search warrant must be obtained before police officers can enter the property of another, applies to cases in which animals are suffering. An exigent circumstance is a legal doctrine which provides an exception to the search warrant requirement guaranteed in the Fourth Amendment and allows a police officer to enter the property of another without a search warrant in order to preserve life or property when swift action must be taken to prevent imminent danger to life or serious damage to property. Without "exigent circumstances" or some other exception to the Fourth Amendment search warrant requirement, a police officer must have probable cause to believe a crime has been committed and must obtain a search warrant from a judge to enter a person's property. Obtaining a search warrant is obviously a relatively slow process which is why the exigent circumstances exception was established. An example of an exigent circumstance would be if an individual robbed someone with a weapon and ran into his/her house. Law enforcement would be able to enter the house to apprehend the suspect because the police officers would have a reasonable belief based upon the circumstances that the suspect would attempt to destroy the weapon and/or any evidence linking him to the crime, thus hindering the investigation of a serious offense. Exigent circumstances would also exist if an officer was called to investigate a domestic disturbance, arrived at the door and heard screaming and yelling, thus believing that someone was about to be injured. Exigent circumstances is a doctrine that is hard to define and must be examined on a case by case basis.

In the California Appellate Court case People vs. Keith Chung, the neighbor of the defendant (Mr. Chung) testified that she called the police after hearing what sounded like a dog whining in pain. The police arrived at Mr. Chung's door, Mr. Chung stated through the door that he had no dogs, but police officers heard a dog whine as though it was in pain. Based on this, the police officers believed that exigent circumstances existed and immediately entered the house without a search warrant and found a dog badly beaten on the patio and a dead dog in the freezer. Both had suffered severe head injuries. The dog found on the patio was so severely injured that he had to be euthanized. The Court stated that the whining of the dog as though it was in pain created an exigent circumstance justifying the officers entering Mr. Chung's home without a search warrant to save the dogs and prevent them from further danger. Mr. Chung, however, still has the option to appeal the case further.

While there are at least two other cases in the U.S. that I know of that are very similar to this, to my knowledge there has been no such decision made by the appellate courts in Florida. I will do further research to confirm this. I hope that Florida Appellate Courts, if faced with this case, would follow the ruling of the California Appellate Court.