Supreme Judicial Court, April 11, 2014

The emergency aid exception to the warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and art. 14 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights extends to police action undertaken to render emergency assistance to animals.

After receiving a report from a neighbor, police entered the defendant's front yard without a warrant and seized three dogs that had been left outside in severe winter weather.   Two of the dogs appeared to be dead, and one was extremely emaciated.   The defendant was charged with three counts of animal cruelty under G.L. c. 272, § 77.   A Superior Court judge granted the defendant's motion to suppress evidence obtained as a result of the warrantless search but subsequently reported a question of law: "Does the 'pure emergency' exception to the warrant requirement extend to animals?"

The Court concluded that, in appropriate circumstances, animals, like humans, should be afforded the protection of the emergency aid exception.   Because the emergency aid doctrine remains a narrow exception to the warrant requirement, its application to 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.   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.”   Unlike a situation where an emergency exists involving human life, when an animal life is in question, other factors must be considered in determining whether such entry is justified.  Such factors include whether the animal's condition was caused by human abuse or neglect, the species of the animal in need, the nature of the privacy interest at issue, whether any efforts were made to obtain the consent of the property owner prior to making entry onto the property, and the extent of the intrusion, including any damage done to the property.  “Inevitably, of course, there will be countless and varied iterations of emergency aid scenarios involving animals, and these factors do not purport to be exhaustive. The reasonableness of the search must be determined on a case-by-case basis upon consideration of the totality of the circumstances.”