Hungarian Vizsla dog behind a fence
Hungarian Vizsla dog behind a fence (E. Boros)

Massachusetts’ highest court has ruled that officials may enter private property without a search warrant to rescue animals “in appropriate circumstances.”

Ruling on an issue of first impression for the state’s high court on Friday in Commonwealth v. Heather M. Duncan, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court said that, “in appropriate circumstances, animals, like humans, should be afforded the protection of the emergency aid exception.”

“In addition to promoting life-saving measures, the ability to render such assistance vindicates the legislative framework for preventing cruelty to animals, particularly the provision regulating the conditions under which dogs may be kept outside,” Associate Justice Barbara Lenk wrote.

She cited precedents from California, the District of Columbia, Rhode Island, Montana and Vermont.

According to court records, in January 2011 police in Lynn, Mass., responded to a neighbor’s report of two dead dogs and an emaciated dog outdoors in freezing and snowy weather. Police climbed a snow bank to look into the locked yard. After unsuccessful efforts to reach the owner, they had the fire department remove the lock and animal control authorities take the dogs.

The owner was charged with three counts of animal cruelty but moved to suppress the police observations and physical evidence. The trial judge asked the state’s high court for guidance. Numerous animal rights groups and law enforcement entities filed amicus briefs siding with the state.

Chief Justice Roderick Ireland and associate justices Margot Botsford, Robert Cordy, Fernande Duffly, Ralph Gants, Francis Spina joined Lenk, who stressed that the “reasonableness of the search must be determined on a case-by-case basis.”

Duncan’s lawyer, Travis Jacobs of The Jacobs Law in Boston, decried the ruling. “You almost subject yourself as a pet owner to the possibility that a claim of abuse could result into intrusion into your home,” he said.

A prosecutor welcomed the outcome. “This ruling makes clear that police may respond to an emergency in which an animal requires immediate protection or is in imminent danger of physical harm while still respecting the boundaries of the Fourth Amendment against unreasonable search and seizures,” District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett of Essex County, Mass., said.

Paul Wagoner, an assistant district attorney in the office’s appeals division argued the case.

Sheri Qualters can be contacted at squalters@alm.com.