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VACTF Manual - Chapter 1: Be Perpared Ahead of Time

Key Concepts: Exigent Circumstances And Plain View Doctrine


There are two concepts that are important to your investigation of animal cruelty:

  • exigent circumstances
  • the plain view doctrine

Exigent Circumstances

Within the context of animal cruelty, exigent circumstances exist if you find an animal in circumstances that put its life in danger. Title 13, Section 354 (b) 3 states:

Seizure without a search warrant: "If the humane officer witnesses a situation in which the humane officer determines that an animal's life is in jeopardy and immediate action is required to protect the animal's health or safety, the officer may seize the animal without a warrant. The humane officer shall immediately take an animal seized under this subdivision to a licensed veterinarian for medical attention to stabilize the animal's condition and to assess the health of the animal." (Note: It is always "safer"-on legal grounds-to obtain a search warrant. Be certain that this case warrants emergency seizure before intervening!)

Examples of Exigent Circumstances:

  1. You are investigating an animal complaint. As you approach the property, you see a cat that is emaciated and unable to get up lying on the porch. It appears to be in danger of dying. You can seize the animal and remove it, and charge the owner with a violation of Title 13, Section 352.

  2. It is a hot day. You are called to a parking lot to investigate a complaint about a dog in a locked car with the windows rolled up. The dog is panting heavily and is in danger of death. You can enter the car and remove the dog and provide whatever assistance is needed (See also Title 13, Section 386 (b)). If possible, have someone witness the situation and sign a statement. You can charge the owner or person responsible for the dog's situation with a violation of Section 352 of Title 13. NOTE: If you have to break a window to enter the car you are responsible for the security of the car afterwards. The owner of the car is responsible for the cost of repairs.

  3. You are sent on a complaint and see a dog chained with a collar imbedded in his neck, causing extreme suffering. You may seize the dog and call the animal control officer or humane agency personnel to take the animal to a veterinarian for treatment and charge the person responsible with a violation of Title 13, Section 352.

  4. You are going about your duties and see a man beating a dog with a baseball bat. Arrest the man under Title 13, Section 352, seize the dog and call the animal control officer or humane agency personnel to take the animal for veterinary treatment.

  5. You come upon two men fighting their pit bulls. Arrest the men under Title 13, Section 352 (5) and call the animal control officer or humane agency personnel to remove the animals and take them for veterinary treatment, if necessary. NOTE: Animal fighting violations carry felony level penalties. See Title 13, Section 353 (a)(3).

Plain View Doctrine

There are two aspects of the plain view doctrine that are important in animal-related cases:

1. Plain View Observation
When you are investigating an animal-related complaint, you can make observations to determine its validity from a place where you have a right to be while doing your job.


  1. You are driving up to a person's house to investigate a cruelty complaint, and you see an animal that appears to be extremely neglected in plain view. You can use that observation as evidence in your investigation.

  2. An owner will not allow you on the property to see the animal; however, a neighbor, whose property adjoins the owner's property, allows you to observe the animal from there. If your observations confirm the complaint, you can use them to apply for a search warrant.

Based on your observations of the animal's situation - in plain view - you can do the following, depending on the animal's condition:

  • Make contact with the owner to discuss the situation.
  • Remove the animal if exigent circumstances exist.
  • Apply for a search and seizure warrant.

2. Plain View Doctrine (during a search)
If while you are executing a search warrant during an animal-related investigation an object that is evidence of criminal activity is found, that object may be seized and used as evidence. Bear in mind that you must be in a place where you are authorized to be by the search warrant, and you must search within the scope of the search warrant. (The Plain View Doctrine during a search was established as a result of court cases, i.e. Arizona v. Hicks, 480 U.S. 321, 324-5 (1987).


  1. You are executing a search warrant relating to dog fighting. During the course of executing it, you come across some birds that appear to be fighting cocks. You can seize the birds and use them as evidence.

  2. You are executing a search warrant to investigate a complaint about dogs barking in a vacant building. You come across objects in plain view that indicate that dog fighting has been taking place there. You can seize the objects as evidence.

  3. You are executing a search in a barn looking for an injured horse. During the course of your search, you open the drawer of a file cabinet and find a photo of the owner beating the horse. The photo could not be used in court because it was found outside the scope of the warrant - you would not look for an injured horse in a drawer.
« Photographic Evidence Search Warrant Procedure »

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