By Mark Esposito, Weekend Contributor
Many courts have recognized the so-called emergency aid exception to the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against warrantless searches, but the emergency usually had to involve a natural person. Now the highest court in Massachusetts has extended the doctrine to emergency aid in furtherance of animals. In Jan. 2011, Lynn police were called to the home of Heather Duncan based on neighbors’ reports of two dead dogs lying near her locked fence in her backyard. Two officers from the Lynn Police Department arrived and began to investigate the scene. Climbing a nearby snowbank, the officers saw two motionless dogs and another barking weakly. No food or water was seen and according to the officers, the dogs appeared malnourished and in immediate distress. After trying unsuccessfully to reach the homeowner, fire officials were called who promptly cut the fence lock and escorted the police onto the property. Two of the animals were indeed dead and the third was starving.
Ms. Duncan was charged with three counts of animal cruelty. She defended the case based on her claim that the officers had unreasonably searched without a warrant and the fruit of their search was thus unconstitutional. No warrant, no dogs, no case went the defense.
Not so fast wrote Justice Barbara Lenk for a unanimous court: ‘‘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.’’ Animal cruelty has been prohibited in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts since Plymouth Rock times and eradicating it along with protecting the animals was a compelling interest justifying treating dogs like anything but chattel. As we know from many discussions here, the law regards our family pets as mere skin and bones with their value being equal to whatever the marketplace decides. Not realistic, really, but as they say, “It’s the law.”
Now, perhaps Massachusetts can lead the way in proclaiming that our fellow creatures deserve at least some protection from the ravages of human behavior. But does this exception go too far in placing the rights of dogs over the constitutional rights of people? You decide:
~Mark Esposito, Weekend Contributor