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Police officers can enter a person's property without a warrant to provide emergency help to an animal, the state's highest court ruled on Friday.
At issue was whether the emergency aid exception to the search warrant requirement in the U.S. and state constitutions, which normally applies only to people, can also apply to animals in need of immediate assistance.
The Supreme Judicial Court ruling stemmed from a January 2011 case in which Lynn police went to a home after someone reported seeing two dead dogs behind a fence on a neighbor's property.
When officers arrived, according to the court, they climbed a snowbank and saw two motionless dogs behind the fence along with a third dog that was barking weakly and appeared to be in distress. The officers did not see any food or water for the dogs.
After unsuccessful attempts to reach the homeowner, police called firefighters to cut a padlock off the fence so animal officers could retrieve the dogs, two of which had died and a third was severely malnourished, authorities said.
Police later charged Heather Duncan with three counts of animal cruelty. The judge hearing her case asked the SJC to rule whether the warrantless search was constitutional.
"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," Justice Barbara Lenk wrote in the court's unanimous decision.
The justices noted that there could be a range of different emergency aid scenarios involving animals in the future and that each case would have to be determined on its own merits.
Aaron Green, a staff attorney for The Humane Society of the United States, which filed a brief in the case, said the ruling makes clear the exception applies in cases when animals are desperately in need of care.
"It's it clear going forward in Massachusetts that this is the law and that animals in need will be able to receive the care they are entitled," said Green.
Courts in 13 other states, including Rhode Island, Vermont and New York, had previously ruled the emergency exception applied to animals, according to the humane society.
"Dating back to colonial times, animal cruelty and neglect have been prohibited," said Essex County District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett, whose office is prosecuting Duncan.
He said the decision will allow police officers to act without violating Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure.
A message left with Travis Jacobs, the attorney who represented Duncan in the high court review, was not immediately returned.