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VACTF Manual - Chapter 1: Be Perpared Ahead of Time

Search Warrant Procedure


In this section, we have outlined procedures that deal with applying for and executing a search warrant in an animal cruelty case, as well as examples of documents used in actual cases that you can use as models:

  • Applying for a search warrant
  • Executing a search warrant
  • Completing the search and seizure receipt/inventory

A search warrant is needed anytime you wish to enter private property to investigate an animal-related complaint.** The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution specifically protects against entering a person's property without probable cause:

"The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."

Probable cause does not require first-hand knowledge and may include reports made to the humane officer by other people. The information must be (1) timely, (2) state detailed facts to support any conclusions, and (3) if based on reports made by others, contain an explanation of how the person gained the information.

If you wish to seize animals, or if you need to enter the property for the purpose of gathering evidence, such as photographs, or a combination of both, you need to apply for a search warrant.

** EXCEPTION: In cases involving exigent circumstances - when an animal is in a life-threatening situation and needs immediate medical attention if action is not taken - you may enter the property and remove the animal(s) without a search warrant. See Key Concepts: Exigent Circumstances and Plain View Doctrine in this chapter.

Applying for a Search Warrant

Your application identifies in detail the property you are requesting to search, the law that is being violated, the animals and related elements you wish to search and seize, and facts that led you to this request. The way you craft the search warrant is key to your success in an animal-related case.

Ensure that your application for a search warrant is as comprehensive as you need it to be because items seized outside the confines of what is specified on the search warrant may not be allowed as evidence.

Consider the following questions when applying for a search warrant in an animal-related case:

Animal-Related Questions

  1. Do you have any expertise with regard to animals that is relevant to the case? For example, the case involves horses and you are an experienced rider.

  2. What is the exact location and description of the property that you wish to search? (Note that animal-related cases have been thrown out of court because the location of the property was not properly specified. Other cases have been invalidated because the wrong houses have been searched.) Being as precise as possible is critical.
    • What street/road is the property located on?
    • What side of the street/road? North? etc.
    • What is the closest street? (for example, Green Hollow Road is 1/4 mile south of Main Street.)
    • What color is the house? What is it made of?
    • Is it a multi-unit building or a single family house?
    • If it's a multi-unit building, where is the entrance to the unit to be searched? How is it accessed? Is a unit number visible?
    • Does it have a fence? Is it a corner lot?
    • What other identifying characteristics make it clear that it is this property that you wish to search?
    • Ensure that you provide a description of all buildings.
      (If you have the time, list the lot and block numbers, according to the tax maps of the town/county.)

    NOTE: Your description should be detailed enough that another person unfamiliar with the area would be able to determine the exact location to be searched simply by reading it.

  3. What probable cause do you have to believe that a violation is being committed on the property? The reasons you cite here will determine whether or not the judge will issue a search warrant, so you must be specific. Enter your reasons, followed by those of your witnesses, based on their sworn statements, as follows:

    • What is the name, address, telephone number, and date of birth of the person who provided you with a sworn statement?
    • What was the date of the sworn statement? Recap the statement, ensuring that times, dates, and instances of cruel behavior are carefully documented.
    • Follow the same process with each sworn statement that you have.
    • Have all witnesses explain how they know what they know (i.e. did they see it or did someone tell them the information) and how recently did this occur? You must always include these facts in your affidavit to support a search warrant.

    IMPORTANT: Ensure that you and your witnesses state facts, not conclusions to make your case. For example, state "the cat had a yellow, foul smelling discharge running from its eye," rather than "the cat looked like it had a cold."

  4. What are you specifically requesting to search? You must have probable cause for each area you wish to search.
    • The house? All outbuildings? Storage areas? Specify all the areas you want to search and provide support or reasons as they relate to the case for each area.
    • What property and evidence are you asking the court to seize? Dogs, cats, carcasses? Records? You must include all elements you expect to encounter that you wish to seize.
    • Who should enter the property with you? What humane animal agencies? What veterinarians?

  5. What are you asking that you and the agencies specified above be allowed to do while on the property? Remove the animals? Feed the animals? Provide them with veterinary care? Euthanize the animals that need to be euthanized? Impound the animals on the property?

    IMPORTANT: For maximum effectiveness and cooperation, ask the Deputy State's Attorney assigned to the locality involved to review your search warrant before submitting it to a judge for signature.

Is there a time limit?
Once you ascertain that probable cause for a complaint exists, the time limit for which a warrant may be issued is dependant on the individual circumstances of the case. In general, the time frame depends on the length of time that the illegal activity has been occurring, the type of property being seized, and the type of location to be searched. A court will not count the number of days between the time of the occurrence of events and the time you ask for a search warrant; you only need to satisfy the court that the property you described in your application, and are seeking to obtain, is still likely to be found at the designated location.

In general, to ensure that the conditions of the complaint have not changed, you would apply for the search warrant as soon as possible. (See sample on page 239 of Appendix III, Forms and Supplies List, "Application for Search Warrant with Affidavit").

Executing the Search Warrant

If a local judge agrees with your application, he will issue and sign a search warrant that directs the law enforcement or humane agency named on the warrant to legally enter and search the designated location and seize the property specified on the warrant in addition to performing other tasks designed to bring relief to the animals. (NOTE: Vermont law also requires that a veterinarian licensed to practice in Vermont must accompany the humane officer during the execution of the warrant (Title 13, Section 354 (2)).

Keep the original copy of the search warrant in your possession. Before you conduct the search, give a copy to whoever is on the property that appears to be in a position of responsibility. If no one is on the property, leave a copy of the search warrant in a prominent place.

You must execute the warrant within 10 days, between the hours of 6 am and 10 pm, unless the warrant expressly allows for a night time search. Also, you must knock and announce your presence - before you conduct the search - unless the warrant expressly allows for a "no-knock" search.

NOTE: If the judge turns down your application, the reason will generally be a lack of probable cause, in which case you will have to obtain more evidence and apply again.

Staying on the Property
You can stay on the property for as long as it takes you to complete the search and render assistance to the animals. When you are on the property, you must maintain a chain of custody by your continuous presence.

Post an officer on the scene if you are forced to leave for a short period of time to get an updated warrant for a new area to search, bring animals for treatment, etc.

Once the search warrant is executed, and you turn the property over to the owner/occupant, you will need a new warrant to re-enter.

A copy of the search warrant should be served on the property owner, along with a copy of the search warrant inventory list of all that was taken. The original search warrant and inventory list must both be filed with a return of service to the issuing court within 5 working days.

Is there a time limit?
According to Rule 41 of the VT Rules of Criminal Procedure dealing with search warrants, once the search warrant is issued it must be executed within ten days or it becomes invalid.

Completing the Search and Seizure Receipt and Inventory

Once you complete the execution of a search warrant and seize property, you must complete a receipt (See sample on page 244 of Appendix III, Forms and Supplies List, "Search Warrant Inventory") in which you specify all property that you seized at an individual's property. This includes animals (dead and alive) and any related elements that indicate that the animals were neglected or abused on the property.

How do I fill it out?
When you complete the document, be specific. Indicate the type of animal that was seized (dog, cat, pig, etc.), the sex of the animal, the breed (or if it is a mixed breed, indicate the mix), the color, how many of each were seized, and where it was located (bedroom, hallway, garage, etc). Veterinarians or other expert witnesses will be able to provide you with this information.

For property other than animals, describe the property in detail. Specify the size, the color, and the shape. If, and only if, you know what it is, list it as such. For example, if you are seizing evidence in a dog fighting case, and you come across an implement that is normally used to pry a dog's mouth open during the fight (breaking stick), you would list it as "one breaking stick."

What do I do with it?
Leave a copy with the individual whose property you searched. If the individual is not at home, leave a copy in a prominent place. File the original inventory receipt with the court as soon as possible after you execute your search warrant and keep a copy for your records.

If available, provide the State's Attorney's Office with the veterinarian's sworn statement of the animals' condition as well as the documentation that indicates where the animals are being held. It is important that the humane society involved maintain records as to each animal's placement(s).
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