In Florida, as in other states, police are generally not permitted to enter a person’s property with a valid search warrant or explicit consent from the owner or resident of the property. There are limited exceptions that do permit the police to come into a person’s home without a search warrant or consent. Exigent circumstances can be an exception to the general rule if the police have specific evidence of an emergency situation that requires immediate police attention, and it is not feasible to take time to get a search warrant or consent. For instance, if the police receive a legitimate call of shots fired inside a house and show up hear indications of a fight or an injured party, they would likely be permitted to enter the house to address that issue. However, these exceptional searches are limited in time and scope. The police are only permitted to enter the home for the purpose of investigating and handling the emergency situation. They are not allowed to roam around the property searching for things unrelated to the emergency. On the other hand, if the police see evidence in plain view as they deal with the emergency situation (i.e. illegal drugs out in the open), they are not required to ignore that. In those cases, the police would normally be required to obtain a search warrant based on the evidence they observed while in the home addressing the emergency.
What constitutes valid exigent circumstances depends on the particular case. In an animal cruelty case just south of Jacksonville, Florida, the police received a call about a suspect beating his dog. When the police arrived, they saw the suspect in the back yard and heard what sounded like strikes against someone or some thing. The suspect admitted to hitting his dog but said he did it because the dog bit him. The suspect refused to allow the police inside, but they went in anyway. The police found that the dog was dead and evidence the dog had been abused. The suspect was charged with felony animal cruelty.
His criminal defense lawyer filed a motion to suppress evidence of the dog, other evidence found in the house and the defendant’s statements because the police did not have a right to enter his home without a search warrant or consent. He argued the medical emergency exception to the general rule did not apply to animals. The court disagreed. In Florida, a medical emergency involving an animal is sufficient to allow the police to enter a home under exigent circumstances if the police have enough evidence to establish an immediate need to check on the animal. Because the police had a right to check on the dog, once they saw the dog was dead and the suspect admitting to killing the dog, they had sufficient, admissible evidence for an animal cruelty case.
It is not clear to which animals this reasoning applies. Certainly, it applies to dogs, although the police cannot enter a home any time a dog is barking in apparent distress. Does it apply to cats? Birds? Other small animals? It is hard to tell, but it is certainly possible the courts in Florida will allow the police to enter a home to check on any normal household pet if there is evidence of a medical emergency.