An Illinois cat breeder’s Fourth Amendment rights were not violated when authorities seized her home and her 37 cats, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on Tuesday.
Sally Gaetjens, a cat breeder who lives in Loves Park, Illinois, sued the city, county and some of their employees after they searched and seized her house and her cats in 2014.
On Dec. 4, 2014, a doctor told Gaetjens to go to the hospital for her high blood pressure. Later that day, her doctor couldn’t locate her and called Gaetjens’ neighbor, who was her emergency contact, to check on her. The neighbor knocked on the door of Gaetjens’ home and got no response.
Gaetjens was still missing the next day, so the neighbor called police. The officers got a key from the neighbor and went into Gaetjens’ house. Upon entering, “intense odors” — described as a mix of urine, feces and possibly a decomposing body — forced them back out.
Firefighters then went into the house with breathing devices and temporarily condemned the home. They found 37 cats inside and called Winnebago County Animal Services to remove them. Four of the cats later died while in Animal Services’ care.
Gaetjens, unbeknownst to police, had been in the hospital at the time of the search and seizure. She sued the city, county and various employees of each for violating her Fourth Amendment rights by going into her house, condemning it and taking her cats.
A judge for the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Western Division, determined that Gaetjens’ claim failed because the defendants were entitled to qualified immunity. Gaetjens appealed, and the case went to the Seventh Circuit.
A three-judge panel — comprised of Judges Michael Kanne, Thomas Kirsch II and Michael Scudder Jr. — agreed that Gaetjens claims failed, but not because of qualified immunity. Rather, they found that the individual defendants did not violate the Fourth Amendment.
“She’s right that the Fourth Amendment would usually prohibit such conduct,” Kanne wrote in the opinion. “But emergencies breed exceptions — and this case is littered with emergencies.”
The opinion said the police officer who searched the house, the firefighter who condemned the house and the Animal Services employee who removed the cats all had an objectively reasonable basis for doing what they did. The officer believed Gaetjens was having a medical emergency that required immediate action. The firefighter believed her home posed a safety threat that required immediate attention. And the Animal Services employee determined the cats were in danger because they couldn’t be cared for in the home.
Gaetjens argued in rebuttal that even if Animal Services could take her cats, the organization still violated the Fourth Amendment because its staff used excessive force when capturing the cats. An Animal Services employee used a “cat grabber” to secure a stud cat named Calaio who “looked ready to maul the cat-catcher,” according to testimony. The cat was hurt by the tool and later died.
“That Calaio died as a result of this manifestly reasonable tactic is unfortunate, but it does not an unreasonable seizure make,” Kanne wrote.
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