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Animal cruelty an exigent circumstance

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Ruling on the issue for the first time in state courts, the Indiana Court of Appeals decided animal cruelty rises to the level of exigent circumstances to permit a warrantless search of curtilage. The decision came in a man's appeal of his dog fighting convictions.

In his appeal, Carlton Davis Jr. v. State of Indiana, No. 45A03-0808-CR-407, Carlton Davis argued the trial court erred in admitting evidence that was obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment and that the trial court erred by admitting evidence in violation of Indiana Evidence Rule 404(b).

Davis' neighbors called police after they noticed a strong stench coming from Davis' property and seeing several dogs out in the heat with no food or water. They went to feed the dogs because Davis wasn't home and discovered many animals were injured, malnourished, and living in filthy conditions. The responding officer, Deputy Joiner, noted the conditions of the property and animals and left because his shift ended. Later that day, Detective Weaver, the investigator for animal cruelty cases, came to Davis' property and walked around herself. After speaking with Joiner, Weaver got a search warrant for the property and buildings located on it.

Davis was convicted of promoting or staging an animal fighting contest as a Class D felony, purchasing or possessing an animal for animal fighting contest as a Class A misdemeanor, and possession of animal fighting paraphernalia as a Class B misdemeanor.

Davis argued on appeal the detective had no reason to be on his property to obtain evidence for the search warrant and the trial court should have excluded the evidence recovered during the search pursuant to the exclusionary rule.

Based on Trimble v. State, 842 N.E.2d 798 (Ind. 2006), and caselaw from other states, the appellate court decided animal cruelty may create exigent circumstances to allow for a warrantless search of the curtilage. Joiner's inspection of the property was valid based on these exigent circumstances, wrote Judge L. Mark Bailey, but Weaver's entry onto the property without a warrant violated the Fourth Amendment, citing Middleton v. State, 714 N.E.2d 1099 (Ind. 1999). The probable cause for approval of the search warrant couldn't be based on her observations on the property; however, the affidavit also included Joiner's observations while he was legally on the property. Because of that, there was sufficient legally obtained evidence to support the search warrant, wrote the judge.

The appellate court also determined that even though there were some discrepancies between the affidavit for warrant and testimony from Joiner and neighbors, there was still a substantial basis supporting the issuance of the warrant and that the language of the warrant wasn't vague and overbroad.

The trial court erred in admitting evidence of a trophy receipt and a handwritten paper because they indicate past actions from which inferences could be drawn concerning Davis organizing dog fights, wrote Judge Bailey. The evidence should have been excluded, but it was a harmless error because there is substantial independent evidence of guilt.

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