Seventh Circuit Quotes Fire Chief’s “Gag-A-Maggot” Comment In Ruling in Department’s Favor

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld a district court ruling holding that the City of  Loves Park, Illinois did not violate the Constitutional rights of a woman by forcing entry into her home, seizing 37 cats, and condemning her home. A key point in the ruling was the comment of Loves Park Fire Chief Philip Foley that the smell coming from the home could “gag a maggot.”

Quoting from the decision:

  • Sally Gaetjens bred cats in her home in Loves Park, Illinois.
  • On December 4, 2014, she visited her doctor and was told to go to the hospital because of high blood pressure.
  • Later that day, the doctor couldn’t locate Gaetjens, so she phoned Rosalie Eads (Gaetjens’s neighbor who was listed as her emergency contact) to ask for help finding her.
  • Eads called Gaetjens and knocked on her front door but got no response.
  • The next day, Gaetjens was still missing, so Eads called the Loves Park police and told them that Gaetjens might be experiencing a medical emergency.
  • Defendant Sergeant Allton and another officer went to Gaetjens’s Loves Park home but could not see anyone inside.
  • They did, though, notice packages on the porch, untended garbage, and a full mailbox.
  • The police then met up with Eads, who said she had a key to the Loves Park house and confirmed what she had said on the phone.
  • With these facts before them, the police asked Eads for the key so that they could enter to see if Gaetjens was in danger.
  • Eads obliged but also said that she thought perhaps Gaetjens was at her other home in Rockford.
  • The police went into the home but didn’t get far. After making it about ten feet, intense odors forced them back out.
  • Allton described the smell as a mix of urine, feces, and maybe a decomposing body.
  • The police then called on the Loves Park Fire Department to enter the home with breathing devices.
  • Defendant Fire Chief Foley arrived first, and Allton told him the whole tale.
  • So Foley approached the cracked front door for himself and got a whiff of something that could “gag a maggot.”
  • Foley thus temporarily condemned the home as not fit for human or animal habitation by placing a placard on the front door that read: “CONDEMNED.”
  • More firefighters soon arrived and went into the home to look for Gaetjens. But instead of Gaetjens, they found thirty‐ seven cats.
  • At that point, the responders summoned Winnebago County Animal Services to round up the cats because Gaetjens was not allowed inside the condemned house to care for the clowder herself.
  • In the end, Animal Services impounded the cats from December 4 to December 13, 2014.
  • Sadly, four cats… died as a result of the impoundment.
  • Based on these events, Gaetjens-who unbeknownst to the officers had been in the hospital all along-sued the City of Loves Park, Winnebago County, and various employees of each under 28 U.S.C. § 1983.
  • Relevant to this appeal, she alleged that the individual Defendants (Allton, Foley, and three Animal Services employees) violated her Fourth Amendment rights by (1) entering her home, (2) condemning her home, and (3) seizing her cats.
  • She also alleged that the City of Loves Park and Winnebago County are liable for these violations under Monell v. Department of Social Services of New York.

The district court concluded that Chief Foley, the Loves Park Fire Department, and the other defendants were justified in making the initial entry, deciding to condemn the premises, and the seizure of the cats. The Seventh Circuit concurred, explaining:

  • [T]o satisfy the Fourth Amendment, Defendants’ warrantless searches and seizures needed to fall into an exception to the warrant requirement. They all did-each was justified by an exigent circumstance.
  • Allton had an objectively reasonable basis for believing that Gaetjens was experiencing a medical emergency that required immediate action.
  • Allton reported to Foley that the home was so noxious that the police could not bear going in more than ten feet.
  • Foley then probed the front door himself and smelled a stench that could “gag a maggot.”
  • These circumstances gave Foley a reasonable basis on which to conclude that the home’s “conditions posed an immediate danger to its occupants and the public.”
  • Thus his reflex to temporarily condemn the home and “protect or preserve life” from such danger did not violate the Fourth Amendment.
  • The Animal Services employees (who seized the cats) reasonably determined that the cats were in imminent danger because they could not be cared for in the home.
  • Last, because none of the individual defendants violated Gaetjens’s Fourth Amendment rights, her Monell claims fail as well.

Here is a copy of the decision:

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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