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Victory! California Supreme Court Dismisses Review in Chung

The California Supreme Court has just decided to “let sleeping dogs lie” and decline further review of a California Court of Appeals decision in People v. Chung, which extended the “exigent circumstances” exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement to animals in distress.  This is a major victory for combatting animal abuse and neglect!  This move came in light of the Court’s recent decision in People v. Troyer, concluding that the police could invoke exigent circumstances to search a bedroom while looking for potential victims and suspects in a shooting incident.

The Court put the Chung case on hold pending Troyer.  Now that Troyer has been resolved and upheld the police officers’ actions under seemingly fuzzier facts, the Supreme Court of California was free to decide that no further appellate review was necessary in Chung.  This decision keeps in place the Court of Appeals’ ruling upholding the police officers’ actions in Chung to investigate a call of a dog in severe distress and enter Chung’s residence, despite not having a warrant.

Although I would have liked to have seen how the California Supreme Court would have handled the legal status of companion animals, the Court of Appeals decision had decent analysis on this point.  For instance, Chung argued that exigent circumstances should be limited to protecting human life and should not extend to protection of an animal.  The Court of Appeals could have rested its decision on the fact that dogs are property and that California law allows for exigent circumstances to prevent damage to property.  Instead, the court noted that that animal protection has long been a proper government concern, pointing to the fact that California’s animal cruelty statute dated back to 1872.  The Court of Appeals also discussed (albeit 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.

I will keep watching to see if this case is appealed to the United States Supreme Court, and will keep you posted!


One Step Closer To Extending Exigent Circumstances To Animals In Distress: People v. Troyer

At 12:18 PM, Sergeant Tim Albright of the Elk Grove Police Department in California heard police dispatch broadcast a report of shots fired at a residence, with an unidentified male who had “possibly been shot twice,” and with suspects driving away in a “two-door Chevrolet product.”  Sergeant Albright was the first officer to respond to the residence, arriving by 12:20 PM. 

At the house, no car was in sight.  Albright went to the front porch, where he saw a man with a wound on his head, and blood streaming onto his face and T-shirt.  The man, Adrien Abeyta, was helping a female, Mia Zapata, who had been shot multiple times.  Both Abeyta and Zapata were in distress, and unable to answer Albright’s questions.  Abeyta was at least able to explain that a white male and a black male were involved, and had fled in a blue or black Chevy Tahoe. 

Albright saw smudges and droplets of blood on the front door, including by the handle, and wondered if another victim – perhaps the unidentified male mentioned by dispatch who may have been shot twice – was still in the house.  Albright had to ask Abeyta three times whether there was someone in the house.  Each time, Abeyta paused as if in a daze.  One time, Abeyta gave no answer.  The second time, he said he didn’t think anyone was inside.  The third time, he said no. 

In the meantime, Zapata was screaming and repeatedly asking for water.  Abeyta was also yelling and screaming for medical help.  The sirens of fire trucks and police patrol cars were wailing.  Albright wondered whether Abeyta was right about whether no one remained inside the house, but he was unable to see inside because the window blinds were closed, and there was too much noise to listen for sounds coming from inside.  Albright decided he had to get inside the house to check it out for himself, but he had no time to get a warrant.

Albright asked Abeyta whether the keys Abeyta had were for the house, and explained he had to look inside the house for victims or suspects.  Abeyta said yes, but refused to let Albright in.  Albright warned him that officers would just have to kick the door down, and Abeyta finally unlocked the door.  Albright and a team of officers announced their presence and went inside to look for bodies.

The officers cleared the downstairs and started upstairs.  Officer Samuel Seo approached a locked bedroom door.  He announced his presence, heard no response, and kicked the door in.  Seo immediately smelled a strong odor of marijuana and saw a scale and quarter-size balls of marijuana.  Once Seo and the other officers verified no one else was in the house, Seo told a detective about what he saw, and the detective obtained a search warrant.  The search uncovered more marijuana, a marijuana plant, two semiautomatic pistols, a shotgun, a rifle and ammunition, over $9,000 in cash and evidence linking Albert Troyer to the fruits of the search.

Troyer challenged the officers’ actions, claiming that the warrantless search violated his Fourth Amendment rights.  The trial court denied the motion to suppress, finding that the police had the right under the exigent circumstances exception to the warrant requirement to enter the house and the room.  The Court of Appeals reversed, agreeing that the police had the right to enter the house, but not the room.  The California Supreme Court granted the prosecution’s petition for review, and just issued its opinion this morning.

The primary goal of the Fourth Amendment is to protect the public from warrantless police intrusion into our homes.  As a result, a search or seizure inside a home without a warrant is “presumptively unreasonable.”  With the touchstone of the Fourth Amendment being “reasonableness,” certain exceptions to the warrant requirement have emerged. 

One of these exceptions deals with “exigent circumstances,” which allows an officer to enter a home without a warrant “to render emergency assistance to an injured occupant or to protect an occupant from imminent injury.”  The test is an objective one , looking at the facts known to the officers at the time, and deciding whether they had “an objectively reasonable basis for believing that an occupant is seriously injured or imminently threatened with such injury.”

The majority, led by Justice Baxter, found that the evidence “amply supported an objectively reasonable belief that one or more shooting victims could be inside the house.”  The majority pointed to the facts that the dispatch report indicated that a male victim may have been shot twice and the police still had not located an individual matching that description, that Albright saw blood on the doorway signaling that a wounded person either went in or came out of the house, and that Abeyta’s answers about whether anyone was inside were inconsistent.

Acting Chief Justice Joyce Kennard was the lone dissenter, disagreeing with the majority’s slant of the facts.  Kennard found Abeyta’s answers completely consistent – that no one else remained in the house.  All reports indicated that the suspects had fled.  The blood on the door was probably from Abeyta, who had been moving back and forth on the porch.  And the report of a male being shot twice simply had the wrong sex and obviously referred to Zapata.

The majority dismissed Kennard’s analysis, finding that the officers merely needed an objectively reasonable basis to think someone needed aid inside the house, and had no responsibility to eliminate every other reasonable inference that could have been supported by the facts. 

And so you ask yourself – what does this case have to do with companion animals?  Well, the California Supreme Court placed Chung v. the People of California on hold pending its decision in Troyer.   Chung is also an exigent circumstances case – but the injured occupants in Chung were companion animals. 

The law on exigent circumstances is clear – officers may enter a home without a warrant to render emergency assistance to an injured occupant or to protect an occupant from imminent injury.  The result in Troyer bodes well for upholding the officer’s actions in Chung based on the exigent circumstances exception.  But the question is now whether that “injured occupant” can be a companion animal, with a side issue of whether the California Supreme Court will consider the animals in Chung more as occupants or mere property.


Tools To Combat Animal Abuse, Part 2: Chung and Exigent Circumstances

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!