In 2006 two police officers in Hartford, Connecticut, received a tip from a local gang member who said that illegal guns were being stashed in an abandoned Nissan Maxima parked in the backyard of a particular house. Although the informant never explained how he learned about this alleged hiding place, the officers wasted no time in acting on the information. They went straight to the house and straight into the backyard. They did not stop to get a search warrant first.
Upon arrival the officers found no Nissan and no guns. What they did find was a 3-year-old St. Bernard named Seven, who they proceeded to shoot and kill in front of the 12-year-old girl who was playing with her pet in the backyard at the time. According to that girl, she watched one of the officers shoot the dog in the head while it was lying wounded on the ground from two previous shots.
The girl's family filed suit over this warrantless home invasion, but a jury ruled for the police. The jury said the "exigent circumstances" exception to the Fourth Amendment permitted a warrantless search in this particular case.
Yesterday the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit rejected that jury's holding and ordered a new trial for the offending officers. "There was simply insufficient evidence to warrant the application of the exigent circumstances exception here," the 2nd Circuit declared in Harris v. O'Hare. "Taken to its logical end, [the officers'] argument would permit exigent circumstances anytime there is a tip about illegal guns being located in a high-crime neighborhood or city, and would allow the exception to swallow the rule."
Editor's Note: This article originally misstated the age of the dog's young owner.