Trial court properly denied motion to suppress evidence where discovery of dogs in distress fell under exigent circumstances exception to the warrant requirement. An officer followed an escaped horse to defendants’ residence, where he heard dogs barking and smelled excessive fecal matter. After securing the horse in a trailer, police looked through a window in the garage door and saw dogs in unhealthful conditions, and a device for training fighting dogs. In the backyard, they saw pitbulls in makeshift kennels. Photographs of the property were later used to obtain a search warrant. Defendants ultimately pleaded guilty to one count of felony dog fighting and one count of felony animal cruelty. On appeal, they challenged the denial of their motion to suppress evidence and to quash the warrant. Held: Affirmed. Although curtilage is generally protected by the Fourth Amendment, a warrantless entry into the curtilage of a home may be justified by exigent circumstances. This exception to the warrant requirement applies when an officer reasonably believes an animal on the property is in immediate need of aid due to injury or mistreatment. Generally, a warrantless entry is justified if the facts available to the officer at the moment of the entry would cause a person of reasonable caution to believe the action taken was appropriate. Here, a thin horse had escaped from an unsafe corral, there had been prior calls about the property concerning the conditions of the horses and pit bulls, and there were strong odors of excessive fecal matter associated with unhealthful housing conditions. The officers heard dogs barking in a backyard, and a dog whining and barking from inside the garage. Under these circumstances, it was reasonable for the officers to look through the garage window to see if the barking dog was in genuine distress. It was also reasonable for the officers to briefly enter the back yard to check on the dogs in the kennels visible from outside the fence.
Even if the exigent circumstances doctrine did not apply, the search warrant used to recover dogs and other evidence from the property was supported by probable cause. Even assuming that exigent circumstances did not justify the entry into the backyard to inspect the kennels, the warrant was valid. Another deputy with experience in blood sports had gone to take pictures of the property on a subsequent occasion. His affidavit contained enough information on its own to support a finding of probable cause. He personally observed the kennels (typically used to house fighting dogs) from a public roadway, he knew of prior calls about possible dog fighting on the property, and was aware of the horse and dog fighting training device observed on the property by the other officers. Accordingly, the warrant was valid.
The full opinion is available on the court’s website here: http://www.courts.ca.gov/opinions/documents/B275226.PDF