During the early morning hours of July 13, 2007, Jennifer Lee and her husband woke up to loud banging and the high-pitched cries of an animal coming from the condo unit above her. This wasn’t just barking, it was yelping and howling. The sounds continued for fifteen minutes, growing louder and louder. Lee had been hearing these sounds several times a week, and had even called animal control in the past. But this time it was worse. So much worse that it prompted her to call 911.
Officer Peter Correa and his partner responded to the Los Angeles neighborhood and spoke with Lee. Lee told the officers that she heard loud noises of an animal that seemed to be in pain, and that she thought the animal was being tortured and was in danger.
Correa and his partner went to the condo unit above Lee to investigate. Keith Chung answered the door and told the officers he didn’t own any dogs. But while the officers were at the door, Correa heard a dog faintly whimpering. Correa asked Chung to let them inside, but he refused, claiming it was too messy.
Believing there was an animal in distress inside and no time to obtain a warrant, the officers detained and handcuffed Chung in the hallway. Correa entered the condo to look for signs of an animal in distress. Once inside, Correa saw that the condo was in disarray, and noticed a glass pipe with what appeared to be drug residue inside.
Correa continued to look for the dog he had heard. He entered one of the bathrooms, where he saw what appeared to be dog hair and blood on the floor and walls, and knives. Correa continued to look for the whimpering dog. On the patio, he found a small dog on a towel in a tool box. The dog was injured and weak, non-responsive but still breathing.
Other officers responded for backup. At that point, officers found another dog – dead, cut into sections and frozen solid in a plastic bag in Chung’s freezer. Both dogs had suffered from head injuries, and the dog on the patio had to be euthanized later that morning.
The officers charged Chung with two counts of animal cruelty and possession of a controlled substance. Chung challenged the officers’ actions in a motion to suppress, claiming that the officers had no right to enter the condo without a warrant.
The trial court disagreed with Chung, concluding that it was reasonable for the officers to enter the condo without a warrant to aid an animal they reasonably believed was in distress. After the court denied his motion to suppress, Chung pled no contest to one count of animal cruelty and was sentenced to sixteen months in prison.
Chung preserved his right to appeal the trial court’s decision on the motion to suppress, and pursued the appeal to the California Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals’ decision is a thoughtful fifteen-page examination of what actions officers can take when they believe an animal’s life is in danger.
The Fourth Amendment protects us from unreasonable searches and seizures. Generally, police need a warrant in order to search a residence. In order to get a warrant, the police need “probable cause” that a crime is being committed. This, of course, takes time – precious time during which a suspect can destroy evidence or get away. To address this, the courts have read limited exceptions into the warrant requirement.
One of these exceptions involves “exigent circumstances.” California courts define “exigent circumstances” to include emergency situations requiring swift action to prevent imminent danger to life or serious damage to property. An officer relying on exigent circumstances must be prompted by the motive of preserving life or property, and those actions must appear reasonable and necessary from an objective point of view.
The Court of Appeals took Chung’s arguments one at a time. First, Chung argued that exigent circumstances do not extend to protection of an animal, and should be limited only to protecting human life. The court could have rested its entire logic on the fact that dogs are property and that California law allows for exigent circumstances to prevent damage to property. [For more on this, see my earlier post, Pets, Personal Property and Price: Is Fido a Pampered Pooch or Mere Personal Property?]
Instead, the court discussed the fact that animal protection has long been a proper government concern, as demonstrated by the fact that the animal cruelty statute that Chung was accused of violating dated back to 1872. The court also commented in a footnote that doges have long held a special place in our lives, serving as our companions, aiding the disabled, and functioning as police, military, search and rescue and therapy dogs.
Second, Chung argued that even if protection of an animal could present exigent circumstances, the officers in this case lacked sufficient evidence of exigent circumstances to enter his condo. Just like the trial court, the Court of Appeals had no problem finding that Officer Correa acted reasonably when he entered the condo looking for the whimpering dog.
Chung has continued his battle to the California Supreme Court, which has deferred briefing until the Court has the opportunity to review another case, People v. Troyer. The issue in Troyer is whether, based on the protective sweep exception or the emergency aid exception to the Fourth Amendment’s requirement of a warrant, officers could forcibly enter a locked upstairs bedroom while responding to a report of a shooting with injuries at the house.
I prefer not to read too much into the fact that the California Supreme Court has put Chung on hold until Troyer is decided, and will keep my fingers crossed that the Court will agree that Officer Correa and the other officers were within their rights to aid an animal in immediate distress. If you would like to follow Troyer and Chung, visit the California Appellate Courts’ Information System on line. You can even set up automatic email notifications on that site.
UPDATE (12/07/2010): The California Supreme Court is hearing oral arguments today in Troyer! If you happen to be in Los Angeles at 2:00 PM today, you should stop by and listen in!
UPDATE (2/27/11): The Troyer decision is out — take a look!