By Chris Camire
BOSTON -- In a decision that could impact a local animal-cruelty case, the state's highest court ruled Friday that police officers can enter a person's property without a warrant in order to provide emergency help to an animal.
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.
An animal-cruelty case in Fitchburg was put on hold last year while the Supreme Judicial Court deliberated.
In that case, James Ferreri, 66, of Lunenburg, is charged with operating an unlicensed kennel and four counts of animal cruelty. The charges stem from a July 26, 2012, incident in which Fitchburg police found four pit bulls caged in the basement of a building Ferreri owned on Water Street.
Ferreri's lawyer, Richard Farrell, of Northboro, has asked a judge to dismiss all evidence police obtained from entering Ferreri's building. He has argued that police should have obtained a search warrant before entering the building, adding that the condition of animals did not constitute an emergency to avoid getting a search warrant.
Farrell acknowledged in an interview on Friday that the court's ruling does not help his client. Still, he said he does not think the decision will "dictate" the outcome of the case.
"My concern with this is that how law enforcement is supposed to know when an animal is imminent danger," said Farrell. "It seems to be an open-ended invitation for police to go into someone's house for a barking dog or crying cat. For me it opens a huge door. We're going to see how it plays out, but police aren't experts on when a dog is in danger or a cat is in danger or a cow is in danger."
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 which 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.
In the Ferreri case, the dogs were without food or water and left standing in their own waste, said police. Police did not have a warrant, but cited the tortured sounds the dogs made, the horrible smell of animal waste coming from the building and a report by eye-witnesses of poor conditions inside the building when they broke open the door.
Aaron Green, a staff attorney for the Humane Society of the United States, which filed a brief in the SJC case, said the ruling makes clear the exception applies in cases when animals are desperately in need of care.
"It's 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.
Ferreri's attorney said Friday that he has seen no evidence the condition of the animals in Fitchburg met that threshold.
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.
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.