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Sixth Circuit Unreasonable Search Claim Goes to the Dogs

By Robyn Hagan Cain | Last updated on

This week didn’t start well. The whole office is sick, the rainy season is upon us, and we missed our commuter train twice.

Then we found this Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals case, which combines two of our favorite topics: Warrantless searches and puppies. Suddenly, the sun is shining and things are looking up.

First, let’s talk about the puppies. A litter of 11 American bulldog puppies, to be precise.

James and Angela O'Neill bred their adult bulldogs, and found themselves with a litter of puppies and a bureaucratic headache because they didn't have a breeder's license.

The O'Neills advertised the puppies for sale in the Louisville Courier-Journal. Two undercover Louisville Metro Animal Services (LMAS) officers, purporting to be prospective buyers, responded to the ad.

After viewing the puppies, the "buyers" stepped out to discuss a puppy purchase. Moments later, James opened the door to find several uniformed LMAS officers on his front step accompanying the "buyers."

The LMAS officers told James that they could confiscate all the dogs because the O'Neills did not have a breeder's license and, further, that if more than one dog were unlicensed, then LMAS could seize all the animals on the premises. Neither of the O'Neills' adult dogs was licensed.

Without a warrant, and over the O'Neills' objection, the LMAS officers immediately entered the O'Neills' home and took all the dogs to the LMAS facility.

LMAS neutered and spayed the adult dogs, implanted microchips in all of the dogs, and then required the O'Neills to pay over $1,000 to retrieve the animals. LMAS never formally charged the O'Neills with wrongdoing.

The O'Neills suffered further losses from the LMAS home invasion because their dogs contracted infections at the LMAS facility that required veterinary attention, and the O'Neills had to sell the remaining puppies for less than market value.

The O'Neills sued LMAS, alleging that LMAS violated their rights with the warrantless, unreasonable search. The district court initially dismissed the case, but the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated the claim this week.

The Sixth Circuit ruled that the undercover officers' warrantless "search" of the O'Neills' home was constitutional because it wasn't actually a search; much like the factual scenario in Maryland v. Macon, the O'Neills opened a portion of their home to the public to view the puppies. The undercover LMAS officers did not intrude into the O'Neills' home any more than permitted or any more than any other person who responded to the ad.

The LMAS uniformed officers' entry, however, was an unreasonable search in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected LMAS' consent-once-removed argument, noting that consent-once-removed applies to cases in which officers plan to arrest a suspect; here, the officers never intended to effectuate an arrest.

We don't know if LMAS raids are common in Louisville, but we know that dog owners do not respond well to seeing their pets seized. Lawyers, it may be worth your time to read this opinion before you get a frantic call from a dog owner who has lost a litter to LMAS.

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