On April 11, 2014, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court concluded the emergency aid exception to the warrant requirement applied to nonhuman animal life.

In Commonwealth v. Heather Duncan, the police responded to the Defendant’s home to serve a restraining order.  While they were there, police noticed three dogs that appeared to be in ‘bad shape’ and in ‘need of help.’  Six days later, a neighbor called police to report two dogs were now dead and a third dog was emaciated.  The dogs were in the front yard of the house behind a locked gate.  The police made several attempts to try and contact the property owners.  They were unsuccessful.  Eventually, police contacted the Fire Department to cut the padlock on the front gate.  The police entered the yard and removed the dogs.  The defendant was charged with animal cruelty.

The defendant filed a motion to suppress evidence on the grounds that any evidence seized from the warrantless search was tainted by the illegal entry.  After a hearing, the motion Judge allowed the motion, but reported the question to the Supreme Judicial Court asking whether the emergency aid exception extended to animal life?

It is well-settled that the right of police to enter a home, for whatever purpose, represents a serious governmental intrusion into one’s privacy.  See Commonwealth v. Peters, 453 Mass. 818 (2009).  The ‘emergency aid doctrine’ is one exception to the warrant requirement.  The “emergency aid exception’ to the warrant requirement would allow police to enter a home without a warrant when they have an objectively reasonable basis to believe there may be someone inside who is injured or in imminent danger of physical harm.  See Commonwealth v. Forde, 367 Mass. 798 (1975).  Previous cases had always applied the emergency aid exception to cases of physical human injury or imminent physical harm to a human.

In a case of first impression, the Supreme Judicial Court concluded the exception could extend to nonhuman animals as well.  In analyzing the issue, the court considered a variety of statutes relating to the treatments of animals.  Ultimately, the court concluded public policy favoring the minimization of animal suffering suggested the emergency aid doctrine may apply when an animal is injured or in imminent physical harm.

However, the court also stated other factors should be considered when applying the emergency aid exception to animals.  On such factor is whether the animals condition was caused by abuse or neglect by a human.


Commonwealth v. Heather Duncan represents a case of first impression in Massachusetts.  The case is instructive in that its’ reasoning can provide a lawyer with a roadmap  as to how a court should think about applying the ‘emergency aid exception’ in a case where animals are involved.

Top Massachusetts Criminal Defense Attorneys will research the case law looking for analogies and distinctions with other similar cases when preparing to suppress evidence.

Massachusetts Suppression Attorney Jeff Miller analyzes the facts of each search and seizure to determine is his clients’ Constitutional Rights have been violated.  CLICK HERE to read about cases where Boston Criminal Defense Lawyer Jeff Miller has successfully suppressed evidence.  If the police have searched your home without a search warrant, contact the Law Office of Jeff Miller at 617-482-5799 immediately to schedule an appointment.