Monday, October 18, 2010

Can Animal Welfare Justify Exigent Circumstances?

The defendant, Michael Angelo DeMarco, was convicted of cruelty to animals in Connecticut. His case presents an interesting Fourth amendment question about exigent circumstances.

DeMarco bred beagles. Responding to some complaints from neighbors, an officer left a note on DeMarco's door asking him to contact the animal shelter. When DeMarco did not contact the shelter, the officer returned. He saw the original notice still on the door. He also heard barking inside the house and, according to the Court decision, described "a strong, 'horrible odor,' which he described as a "feces smell." The officers decided that the animals in the house might be in danger and need of assistance and decided to conduct a welfare check. Inside, the police found a number of dogs in bad shape, and a house in such disrepair that it had to be condemned. Based on the evidence found in the house, he was charged with animal cruelty.

DeMarco challenged the entry of the police into his home. The police argued that the entry was justified by the exigent circumstances to the warrant requirement.

A brief explanation of exigent circumstances. The presence of exigent circumstances is one of the few occasions when a warrantless entry into property is justified. The Supreme Court has said that exigent circumstances exist when there is a combination of "a compelling need for official action and no time to secure a warrant." One example is the need to prevent the imminent destruction of evidence. Another example is a need to assist persons who are seriously injured or threatened with such injury. In those cases, officers can enter a home without a warrant to provide emergency assistance to an injured occupant or to protect an occupant from imminent injury.

The court held that the exigent circumstances doctrine did not apply in this case for two reasons. First, the court believed that the police had DeMarco's cell phone number available to them at the time they made the decision to enter the defendant's home, and should have attempted to contact him before entering his home. Second, the court believed there were not enough facts to support the police conclusion that exigent circumstances existed. The court said:

Conversely, this case does not present any of the likely indicia of an emergency situation. The police did not respond to the defendant's home as a result of an alarm, there was no evidence that a violent criminal offender might be hiding in the house, no evidence of a break-in and no signs of a struggle or blood or any other indication of a potentially dangerous situation. The justification supporting the emergency exception to the warrant requirement is that there are situations in which the police have to react to save a life, and they simply do not have the time to get a warrant before acting. . . . Indeed, the measured behavior of the police while at the defendant's residence is stark evidence of their awareness that they were not in the midst of an emergency situation. . . . the authorities were at the defendant's home for nearly one hour prior to entering the dwelling.

I think the Court made the wrong decision in this case. The undisputed information available to the officers at the time was that several dogs had been heard barking inside an uninhabited, dirty, house that was in such bad condition it had to be condemned. This is enough to suggest that the dogs were in urgent need of assistance. The police acted prudently in taking a few moments to assess the situation and form a proper response – this does not suggest that there was no emergency. Moreover, the exigent circumstances exception has not been limited to just people or evidence – the welfare of animals is likely also included.



  1. I think you're wrong in two ways.

    First, in the eyes of the law, animals are property (mostly). In your own explanation you wrote that exigent circumstances "is a need to assist persons who are seriously injured or threatened with such injury." I love animals, but I think there's scant evidence to support the supposition that the courts intended to include animals in the definition of "persons."

    Second, having been at the property and observed evidence that a reasonable person could conclude indicated a crime (animal cruelty) was being committed, it should have been easy for the officers to make the case for a radio warrant to search the premises.

  2. I agree with MailDeadDrop - why couldn't they get a warrant? I feel for the dogs too, but there is nothing to suggest that there wasn't time or opportunity to get a warrant - cops can get a warrant in a couple of hours, if not faster. What was going to happen to the dogs in a couple of hours?