Legal Lingo

By Leisa Boley Hellwarth, a dairy farmer and an attorney

Many years ago, my Aunt Grace told me that if a cat sleeps with its nose in the air, then it would rain. Peanuts, my beautiful long-haired tortoise housecat, is more reliable than Doppler radar and more entertaining than the local weatherman. This has been one of the wettest springs on record, with old-timers recalling 1981 and 1967. And our barn cats have been sleeping with their noses in the air since February. Hoping to get a much-needed break from precipitation, I am now waking cats reclining with their noses pointing up.

Regarding felines, there’s a saying that you own a dog, but you feed a cat. Witty, but true. Recently, cats, which required a sitter to feed them when their owner went on vacation, led to an interesting case decided by Ohio’s Sixth District Court of Appeals. This matter is worth discussing because it upheld the Fourth Amendment’s protection from unreasonable search and seizure by the government and the state.

Cat Owner decided to leave town for a few days, so she asked her friend to enter her kitchen on three separate occasions to feed her cats. When Cat Sitter arrived to feed the cats, he apparently snooped throughout the house and discovered steroids and related syringes, vials and pill bottles. Then, Cat Sitter called the local police department and consented to a search of Cat Owner’s house. So, when Cat Owner returned from vacation she was promptly cited with one count of permitting drug abuse.

Cat Owner’s lawyer wisely filed a motion to suppress the evidence seized during the search. At the suppression hearing, the attorney argued that Cat Sitter had been asked to do nothing more than enter the house and feed the cats, and therefore did not have authority to consent to the police searching Cat Owner’s home.

The trial court found the search was valid and denied the motion to suppress. So, Cat Owner entered a plea of no contest to an amended charge of obstructing official business, a second-degree misdemeanor and promptly appealed to Ohio’s Sixth District Court of Appeals.

The appellate court agreed with the arguments asserted by Cat Owner and reversed the judgment of the trial court. In its decision, the appellate court specifically stated that physical entry of the home is the chief evil against which the wording of the Fourth Amendment is directed. Before the government may search without a warrant, they must receive voluntary consent from the property owner or from a third party who possesses common authority over the property. In the case before the court, the Cat Sitter lacked common authority and could not grant permission.

Why should we care about this drug-related scenario? In recent years, personal liberties have suffered at the expense of fighting terrorism and public safety. It’s refreshing to see an Ohio appellate court reach a decision that upholds the Fourth Amendment. The real issue in this case is who has the authority to grant a search without a warrant.

Let’s change the facts a little. Suppose Hog Farmer decides to take a few days off to go on a short vacation, the first he’s had in years. So, Hog Farmer asks his Neighbor to do his morning and evening chores. When Neighbor is doing the chores, he decides to give himself a farm tour. In the process, Neighbor discovers that the manure lagoon is full. So, Neighbor calls EPA, ODA, SWCD, ODNR and any other letters he can find in the phone book. Does this change how you feel about the issue?

To avoid such problems, be very careful about whom you ask to enter your property for whatever reason, especially when you are not present. And if there is a need to have someone perform specific tasks on your farm in your absence, be certain to indicate with particularity the purpose while limiting their authority. And don’t be afraid to argue to preserve your personal constitutional rights.

I’ll leave you with two cat superstitions I just discovered via the Internet. If a cat washes behind its ears, it will rain. A cat sleeping with all four paws tucked under means cold weather ahead. Here’s wishing that your cat only sleeps with its nose in the air and washes behind its ears when you need rain. And no cats sleeping with all four paws tucked under until November!

Leisa Boley Hellwarth is a dairy farmer and an attorney. She represents farmers throughout Ohio from her office near Celina. Her office number is 419-586-1072.

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