Investigation is simply uncovering facts. When an officer investigates a potential crime, animal bite, rabies vaccination status or even attempting to identify an owner of an animal, you pursue and obtain information in an effort to reveal the facts. Once you are comfortable that the information you have is trustworthy, you can pursue further actions whether it be a conversation, notice, warning, or the pursuance of criminal charges.
Your investigations and almost every duty you perform in the field will go much smoother and faster if the people in your community trust you.
There is a wealth of training available regarding investigations and an abundance of techniques and equipment. This course is not designed to provide in depth instruction. Local sworn law enforcement officers have specialized training in investigating crime and most will assist you.
Safety in the Field
Animal officers face very similar hazards in the field as do law enforcement officers. So before we discuss actions in the field, let's take a minute and look at the safety hazards that are out there.
You will be entering quite many of the same areas law enforcement officers go into and most of the same hazards for them exist for you.
Animal officers generally do not have the readily available back up that the Sheriff's office or police have in the field.
Saying that, when you respond to a report you will likely be the first and only officer on the scene and any back up you would may not be able to assist you in the time frame you need it.
People pose the greatest risk
As you are already aware, animals are more predictable than people. Circumstances and the people involved can change in minutes and people observing an animal officer at a scene, regardless of its complexity, can prompt high emotional responses from those involved and onlookers.
Situational awareness is elemental in military and law enforcement training programs but few uncertified officers have had the benefit of this type of training leaving them at greater risk.
Avoid entering houses or other structures whenever you can.
A simple, easy to remember 4 step to improve your situational awareness:
STOP: Engage your mind before your hands. Define your objective before leaving your vehicle.
LOOK: Take a good look around the area; identify potential hazards, ie; animals, people, debris, weather, people, vehicles.
ASSESS: Gauge the situation’s potential hazards. Ask yourself what/who may be behind the tree, the residence, in the car? MANAGE: A quick plan as to how you will enter, complete what you came to do and how you can quickly leave the area. Last Step: Do I have with me what I need to complete the objective and protect myself from potential hazards?
Never leave your vehicle without some type of protective device you can use immediately and always know your way out.
American drivers must exit their vehicles on the dangerous, traffic side of the road. You're probably a good driver but animal cargos provide additional blind spots and items hanging about the vehicle cabin can obstruct your view.
Drivers don’t seem to be getting any better as time goes by. Simply standing at the side of the road, in a parking lot or even a driveway leaves you at risk of injury by careless, negligent drivers. Drivers using cell phones and other electronics increase your risk significantly.
Law enforcement agencies across the county employ vehicles lit up with flashers, sirens and their officers well trained in vehicle hazards. In 2017 over 30 law enforcement officers lost their lives due to vehicle incidents 4 of them in North Carolina. Officer vehicle deaths exceed the numbers of fatalities due to firearms.
Situational awareness is simply knowing what’s going on around you. Practice, practice, practice.
The risk of contracting a communicable disease or illness from working with and around all kinds of animals and people is inherent in animal services.
Good personal, vehicle, equipment and facility maintenance and sanitation practices will minimize your exposure, however there are other risks to be aware of:
Animal workers, no matter their role work under various and fluctuating stress conditions. The receptionist gets a hostile earful daily, animal husbandry staff work in wet, loud conditions, euthanasia is tough on everyone and the field officer approaches people and animals in uncontrolled situations knowing most don’t want to see them today.
High or constant stressors reduce your immune system leaving you vulnerable to disease. Stress can result in sleep disruption, emotional fatigue, cynicism and anxiety. It is very difficult to avoid stressful conditions; find a positive way to relieve them.
Compassion fatigue, also known as STSD, Secondary traumatic stress disorder is a known result of animal, rescue, physicians and emergency response workers and you should know and address the signs.
Here is a link here to the Animals and Society Institute page about compassion fatigue with links to further information and assistance.
Compassion fatigue: Emotional exhaustion, caused by the stress of caring for traumatized or suffering animals or people.
Drug Labs Meth labs are everywhere and you will probably visit one. If you feel you have recognized a meth lab, leave the area and inform law enforcement.
Law enforcement are now finding “rolling” meth labs housed in tractor-trailers, SUVs, station wagons and vans and “back pack” labs where the manufacturing process occurs while the backpack is being worn. How many times have you met with a person wearing a backpack?
Some signs of a house containing a meth lab relate not to the appearance of the structure but rather to the behavior of its occupants. You should look for:
Paranoid behavior: Meth makers tend to act in a manner that is extremely paranoid and secretive; monitoring passing cars, suspicion toward strangers, elaborate security systems around the homes.
Staying inside: Residents of houses containing meth labs remain inside their homes for extended periods of time, many meth addicts and meth makers paranoid and secretive, and generally unemployed.
Smoking outside: Avoiding igniting a fire or explosion..
Frequent visitors: As with most drug dealers they stay in or near their homes and often receive a large number of visitors, especially at night. Visitors may be bringing supplies, taking out meth, using meth, hanging out, or any combination.
Mobile garbage: To eliminate evidence meth makers may burn their trash, place it in the area of another house or building, or cart it away and dump it elsewhere.
Odor: Examples of odors from a meth lab might be a sweet ether smell, acrid chemical fume, ammonia or cat urine odor, or rotten egg sulfurous stink.
The chemicals and materials required to manufacture meth are many and varied and most are extremely hazardous.
You will be working primarily alone, under stressful, potentially hazardous conditions. Most people outside your office will not understand your profession. Take care of yourself and follow these 4 points every day:
Do not become complacent in field responses, even when they are routine.
Make SLAM a habit.
Find someone you can trust to vent.
Watch your health.
Your investigations, simple or complex should always pursue the answers to these questions:
Where (did it happen)
When (exact time of the criminal act)
How (did it happen)
With what (what were the means)
Who (did it) and With whom
Why (the motive)
While investigating the answers to your question, good note taking is essential.
Good field notes are crucial to you in investigations, reporting and in court proceedings. We will discuss field notes further in Section 7, Reports. Your notes will be used later to answer your What, Where, When, How, With, Who and Why questions.
Document your initial observations, personal impressions and sensory reactions, the animals and the persons present.
As you investigate your report you may want to speak to a specific person and there may be others at the location. Asking an individual to identify themselves and their business in the area is appropriate. You may also ask for identification and note the ID number, address, and date of birth (DOB). Be prepared the individual may refuse to show you ID or even to talk to you.
When speaking with someone note the individual’s physical description, racial background, vehicle, location, associates, etc; You may ask permission to take an individual’s or animals photograph; with the understanding that if permission is denied, you may not photograph unless the animal or person is on public property with no reasonable expectation of privacy.
There will rarely be circumstances in which you will need a photograph of a person you are interviewing.
Interviews are just that, they are not interrogations. You can obtain a wealth of information by asking open ended questions. You will be surprised at how much people will tell you. Be friendly and approachable; if you intimidate or alienate someone during your interview you will be hard pressed to gain cooperation later.
Just for fun.
Initiating A Field Interview
When approaching an individual or a group, clearly identify yourself, that you are an animal officer and display your departmental identification and badge.
Inform the individuals approached that speaking with you is voluntary and that they are free to leave at any time.
Remain courteous at all times during the contact, but maintain observance of your surroundings.
Limit your questions to the individual’s identity, place of residence, their business in the area and if they would give you any information about the situation.
Many people will provide more information than you asked for and their first statements are generally the closest to the truth.
Hi Mr. Todd, I am John Squire, an animal officer for Slack County (have your ID in view). I am responding to a report about some sick cats that live in the area. Do you live here? If Todd answers, “No”, ask, “I understand, why are you here?” “Would you mind talking to me about the animals? If not, maybe you can tell me who might be able to help me out?”
If Mr. Todd finds you approachable and non threatening or has heard you are professional and easy to work with he may tell you about Ms. Flagan who hoards cats just down the road. At the very least you may obtain a name and/or address to carry your investigation further.
While speaking with someone about an animal incident you may ask for handwritten statement. Ensuring your vehicle is well equipped will go a long way in obtaining first hand information quickly and projects a high level of officer professionalism.
If you cannot acquire a handwritten statement in the field you may request a person (not require) to visit your office but this is an additional effort many will not want to provide and lengthens your investigation.
The statement should include:
Name of the person writing
Their recollection of an incident
It will help if you can make note of any witnesses that are present during the time the statement was written.
A consent to search must be given by a person who is the legal occupant and with the legal authority and who can extend that authority. Renters are afforded the same right to privacy as homeowners. If you pay a mortgage on your house or make car payments do you consider the bank holding your loan as having or giving the authority to enter your house or vehicle? If you need to enter a vacant rented property it is best to consult a sworn law enforcement officer for advice and, if possible, they should act as a witness when a landlord requests you to enter rented property.
Entering a property to set traps, remove animals, etc, must have the consent of the legal occupant.
Many agencies include a consent statement, or signed complaint/report to be signed before entering a property.
If your intent is to seize an animal always obtain the search and seizure warrant first. There are exceptions (exigent circumstances) which are highly variable. We will discuss exigent circumstances later in this section.
Plain View and the Reasonable Expectation of Privacy
The courts have stated that if an officer is standing where he has a "legal right to be" and observes evidence of a crime he is not performing an illegal search. The evidence is in plain view. Not knowing where your legal right to be is a very common mistake for those new to the profession. Examples of common or public access:
Public roads, sidewalks, parks, buildings.
Common areas of housing units or apartments.
Normal and common entry to a residence or business.
Example: You are walking on the entry path to a residence and observe a dog is tied at the side of house and appears to be choking and in immediate danger of dying. You have a legal right to be on the path but the animal is at the side of the house, in plain view but not at the usual entry point for a visitor. You may legally enter the property and seize the dog. (exigent circumstances). There is a tendency for some officers to stretch the "Plain View Doctrine" and this should be avoided. Again, contact a sworn officer whenever possible.
Whenever there is time to obtain a search and seizure warrant, do so. Unsworn officers can not execute a warrant. Warrants must be executed by a sworn law enforcement officer in your jurisdiction.
An open field with anything visible to the eye would not be considered a reasonable expectation of privacy and not considered an illegal search since it is not hidden from view. Observing objects and animal in a lawful manner does not allow an officer to seize property unless exigent circumstances present themselves.
Use your observations and your camera to support probable cause.
We will discuss probable cause in Section 5 Civil and Criminal Procedures. In 2000, Rowan County Animal Control observed starving horses in an open field and in plain view, while on the public roadway where they had the legal right to be. The agency did not obtain a search and seizure warrant, seized the animals and filed animal cruelty charges. The defendant was convicted of 6 counts of animal cruelty. The defendant then appealed the conviction. The NC Court of Appeals reversed the District Court convictions based on the illegal seizure of the horses. While the search itself was lawful under the open fields doctrine, entering private property to seize the horses required a warrant. Whenever there is time to obtain a search and seizure warrant, do so.
In the case of the Rowan horses, there was time to obtain the search and seizure warrant and by not doing so violated the owner's constitutional rights. The agency lost the case and by performing an illegal seizure the case left their jurisdiction civilly liable. Further, the prosecution, if attempting to use exigent circumstances to justify the seizure, would need to prove beyond a reasonable doubt, that the horses were in imminent danger of dying or that they were going to be removed from the field. Since the agency spent a few days organizing the operation the action had no justification. Unsworn officers can not execute a warrant. Warrants must be executed by a sworn law enforcement officer in your jurisdiction.
The Fourth Amendment prohibits only unreasonable searches and seizures.
There are exceptions to the Fourth Amendment where exigent circumstances dictate that an officer must proceed rapidly to prevent the removal or destruction of evidence.
Exigent Circumstances: An emergency situation requiring swift action to prevent imminent danger to life or serious damage to property, or to forestall the imminent escape of a suspect, or destruction of evidence (evidence being your animals, paraphernalia, etc.).
Some local ordinances will address exigent circumstances. Craven County defines in its ordinance what actions, or neglect of an animal justify the immediate seizure of an animal by means of exigent circumstances.
Sec. 6-155. - Penalties; remedies. An animal control officer may undertake one or more of the following actions when a person fails or refuses to abide by or otherwise violates any provision of this article VI: (a) Obtain a magistrate's order to take possession of the animal. (b) Immediately impound the animal if the conditions pose an immediate threat to the health or safety of the animal or the public. A notice of seizure describing the exigent circumstances warranting the seizure will be left with the owner or affixed to the premises.
Example: When an officer has reasonable grounds to believe that a defendant would remove an abused animal or, even more convincingly, an abused animal would not have survived for any length of time if they had not been seized immediately and placed under care, the exigent circumstances exception could apply. In 2016, a portion of the city of Detroit’s animal ordinance (adopted in 2004) was struck down as unconstitutional by claiming violations of the ordinance were found to be in the category of “exigent circumstances”, allowing officers blanket authority to search, enter property and seize animals without a warrant. Several pets were taken over the years and it is reported many animals euthanized due to the owner’s inability to pay fees. The city ordinance pushed the envelope on this issue, violated constitutional rights and lost its’ defense. Several residents sued the city for various damages as a result.
Discuss exigent circumstances with your law enforcement agency, jurisdiction’s legal counsel and/or the District Attorney’s office and have them give you some guidelines before proceeding if your authority is not clear.
Evidence is collected every time you write a notice, fine or talk to someone about a violation. You must have some evidence to justify your actions and report the same.
During a more serious investigation you will collect formal evidence. Evidence is not limited to items or animals seized under the authority of a search warrant. Testimony, weather conditions, animal accessories, documents and other information is considered evidence when used to support criminal charges.
The study of the collection, security, examination and presentation of evidence is an expansive body of information and a wealth of information is available.
If you have an interest in the laws and rules regarding evidence the files below will get you started.
Evidence is anything presented that supports an assertion.
Sources of evidence can include anything from the observations of witnesses to the examination and analysis of physical objects. It can even include spatial relationships between people, places, animals and objects within a timeline of events. From various forms of evidence the court can draw inferences and reach conclusions to determine if a charge has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt.
Relevant – The evidence must prove or disprove an important fact in the criminal case. If the evidence doesn't relate to a particular fact, it is considered "irrelevant" and is therefore inadmissible.
Reliable – Reliability refers to the credibility of a source that is being used as evidence. This usually applies to witness testimony. Your testimony will typically be considered credible unless it has been proven otherwise.
There are 2 basic types of evidence:
Direct evidence usually is that which speaks for itself: eyewitness accounts, a confession, or physical objects used in a crime.
Circumstantial evidence usually is that which suggests a fact by implication or inference such as the appearance of the scene of a crime, testimony that suggests a connection or link with a crime, physical evidence that suggests criminal activity.
An example of circumstantial evidence:
David gets bit by Mark’s dog, after which David exclaims in front of a yard full of people, that he wanted to kill Mark’s dog. A week later, Mark’s dog is found dead in his back yard.
David’s declaration is not direct evidence that he committed the crime, but it gives the investigator circumstantial evidence of a suspect.
Questions to ask about evidence:
Was the evidence obtained in a legal manner?
Will the person who obtained the evidence be able to testify in court? (Is the witness credible?)
Has the evidence been protected from tampering since it was originally obtained? (Chain of Custody)
Is the evidence relevant to your investigation of the crime?
If your answer to all four questions is yes, you should be in possession of legal and valid evidence and can proceed with your investigation.
Chain of Custody
Court judgments and jury verdicts based on corrupted, unreliable, or compromised evidence would undermine the integrity of the entire legal system if such conclusions became commonplace.
One way in which the judicial system tries to ensure the integrity of evidence is by requiring proof ofthe Chain of Custody of the evidence introduced.
The chain of custody is proven by the documentation of every person who had possession or custody of the evidence. The person who initially collects evidence is the first link in the chain.
To maintain the chain of custody, evidence must be preserved from the time it is collected to thetime itis presented in court.
To prove the chain of custody against challenges you must show that the evidence:
is the same evidence collected or received
has remained intact
was not tampered with while in custody.
Documentation is to be formal, chronological and should contain:
the name or initials of the individual collecting the evidence
dates the items were collected
each person or entity subsequently having possession or custody of the evidence
dates that custody of the items were transferred to another agency and case number
the victim’s or suspect’s name
a brief, specific description of the item
A break in the chain can result in the inadmissibility of the evidence.
Chronological: An accounting of time from earliest to latest.
The Chain of Custody can be tricky when handling live animals. The evidence you collect from the animal at the time of the seizure of the animal should provide the evidence needed to pursue a criminal case. It is not the animal itself that is the exhibit and the animal can not speak for itself; it is the evidence from the animal that will show the animal was starved, injured, neglected, etc.
If there is an owner of the animal, ownership is intact unless the owner surrenders the animal to you. If not, you are holding the animal in custody while preserving the chain.
Animals seized should have at the very least a thorough veterinary examination and a detailed record of veterinary findings, photographs and any accessories on the animal (chain, leash, wire, etc) should be cataloged and stored as evidence. Again, the subject of evidence is diverse and expansive.
The ASPCA provides downloadable forms at the link below for animal cruelty evidence and provides training (most times free!).
North Carolina Laws - Animal Control - Animal Protection - Public Health