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Yates v. City of New York

August 4, 2006


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Sidney H. Stein, U.S. District Judge.


I. Introduction

The word chutzpah, despite not debuting in a reported judicial opinion until 1972,*fn1 is now vastly overused in the legal literature.*fn2 Yet in a case such as this -- in which an individual, after being mauled by the 450-pound Siberian tiger he had been raising inside his fifth-floor apartment along with an alligator, sues the city and the police who entered the apartment in an effort to rescue the animals for doing so without a search warrant -- it is a most appropriate term to use.

Antoine Yates claims that the police department's confiscation of his tiger and alligator, and their search of his apartment for evidence of ownership of these and other exotic animals the next day, violated his constitutional rights. He also alleges that during these searches, police officers stole his pet rabbit and several thousand dollars in cash and jewelry. Defendants -- the City of New York and one of the police officers involved in entering the apartment -- have moved for summary judgment in their favor following the conclusion of discovery proceedings. They assert that the police had probable cause to enter and search the apartment (after learning that the tiger had bitten off a chunk of plaintiff's leg) and that, among other reasons, this Court should not exercise jurisdiction over plaintiff's state law claim of conversion of the cash and jewelry. For the reasons set forth below, defendants' motion is granted.

II. Background

The following facts are undisputed, except as otherwise noted. In the early afternoon of October 1, 2003, Antoine Yates was mauled by his pet 10-foot-long, 450-pound adult male Siberian tiger named Ming that Yates had been raising inside his fifth floor Harlem apartment. (Defs.' Rule 56.1 ¶¶ 1, 52; Oct. 4, 2003 Report of Michael Polito ("Polito Oct. 4 Report"), Ex. G to Decl. of Vivian Najib dated Aug. 12, 2005 ("Najib Decl."); Deposition of Antoine Yates dated June 20, 2005, Ex. A to Najib Decl. ("Yates Dep.") at 119:20-23, 121:20-22.) An anonymous caller twice dialed 911 and said that a man had been "bitten by dog" at Yates's address, 2430 Seventh Avenue, Apartment 5E. (Defs.' Rule 56.1 ¶¶ 8-9; Yates Dep. at 118:5-9; Oct. 9, 2003 Report of Michael Polito, Ex. JJJ to Najib Decl. ("Polito Oct. 9 Report").) Police officers responded to the apartment building, which was owned and operated by the New York City Housing Authority, and found Yates "lying face-up on the floor" near the fifth story elevators "screaming and crying in pain." (Defs.' Rule 56.1 ¶¶ 10-12; Polito Oct. 9 Report.) His wounds included a gash below his right knee that exposed the bone and a half-inch cut to his right forearm. (Defs.' Rule 56.1 ¶ 20; Yates Dep. at 110:12-23.) Yates told the officers he had been bitten by "a large brown and white pit bull." (Defs.' Rule 56.1 ¶ 14; Polito Oct. 9 Report.) EMS personnel arrived on the scene and took Yates to Harlem Hospital; all the while, Yates continued to insist that a "pit bull" or "dog" had bitten him. (Id. ¶¶ 15-18; id.)

Two days later, on October 3, the New York City Police Department ("NYPD") received an anonymous tip that a tiger was living inside 2430 Seventh Avenue, Apartment 5E, and that the tiger had mauled a man who was recuperating at Harlem Hospital. (Defs.' Rule 56.1 ¶ 25; Memo from Executive Officer, PSA-6, dated Oct. 12, 2003, Ex. KKK to Najib Decl.) Officers responded to the location but did not enter the apartment because no one answered the door. (Id. ¶ 26; id.) Later that evening, the police returned to the building and interviewed one of Yates's neighbors, who said that there was "a large wild animal," apparently a "full-grown tiger," living in Yates's apartment. (Defs.' Rule 56.1 ¶ 30; Polito Oct. 4 Report.) The neighbor said that Yates had shown the animal to her daughter and that "large amounts of urine" sometimes cascaded from Yates's window down into the window of her apartment. (Polito Oct. 4 Report.)

The police also went to Harlem Hospital to speak with Yates, who insisted that he had been bitten by a pit bull in the stairwell of his residence and that he did not own a tiger. (Defs.' Rule 56.1 ¶¶ 31-34.) At midnight, NYPD Captain Michael Polito interviewed Yates's brother Aaron, who said that Yates had both a fully-grown tiger and a large alligator living inside his apartment. (Id. ¶ 35.) Aaron also said that on the night before, he had opened the door to his brother's apartment, thrown in several pieces of raw chicken and watched as the tiger came toward the food. (Id. ¶ 36.) He added that Yates had acquired the tiger when it was a cub, about one-and-a-half to two years ago, and had raised the tiger in the apartment since then. (Polito Oct. 4 Report.) Polito notified the NYPD's Emergency Services Unit ("ESU") that there was reason to believe that a large dangerous animal was living inside Apartment 5E. (Id.; Defs.' Rule 56.1 ¶ 38.)

At approximately 1 a.m. on October 4, ESU officers arrived at Yates's address. (Defs.' Rule 56.1 ¶ 39.) In an attempt to determine -- without entering the apartment -- if, in fact, a tiger were inside, the officers removed the peephole in the apartment's front door and also lowered cameras from the windows of the apartment directly above Yates's. (Defs.' Rule 56.1 ¶ 40; Polito Oct. 4 Report.) However, the officers could not see the tiger. (Polito Oct. 4 Report.) An hour later, two directors of the Center for Animal Care and Control ("CACC"), which advertises itself as "the only animal care organization in New York City that never turns away animals," arrived and told the officers that CACC did not have the ability to transport or house the tiger. (Id.; The NYPD contacted a veterinarian at the Bronx Zoo, who said that the zoo also did not have the personnel or means to transport a fully-grown tiger from a fifth floor apartment. (Polito Oct. 4 Report.) Unable to confirm the presence of the tiger and without a means for moving it out, the NYPD re-secured the apartment's front door and stationed two officers at the door to stand guard. (Id.) At around the same time, Yates left Harlem Hospital against the advice of his doctors and approached his apartment -- but did not go inside because of the police officers there -- and then spent the night at a friend's apartment. (Defs.' Rule 56.1 ¶¶ 47-48; Yates Dep. at 179:1-20.) The next morning he hied off to Philadelphia. (Yates Dep. at 179:24-25.)

The police proceeded to hold several strategy meetings in which, according to Chief of Police John Seymour, they determined that the situation was an "emergency" because "there was a large tiger roaming around inside an apartment" and "the tiger had recently mauled a man." (Decl. of Chief John Seymour dated Aug. 11, 2005 ¶¶ 4-8, Ex. GGG to Najib Decl.) Seymour said that the police also determined that there was "an urgent need to remove the animal from the apartment" because of "concerns for the safety of residents of the apartment building and the safety of people in the area surrounding the apartment building" as well as concern for the "safety of the animal itself." (Id.) After consulting several agencies with experience in dealing with wild animals, the police, unsurprisingly, concluded that the best option was to tranquilize the tiger before attempting to remove it. (Id. ¶¶ 9-12.)

The NYPD began the removal operation on the afternoon of October 4. (Defs.' Rule 56.1 ¶¶ 62-64.) In order to pinpoint the tiger's location inside the apartment, officers raised a camera from the apartment beneath Yates's to look through Yates's windows, inserted a second camera into the peephole in Yates's front door and cut through one of the apartment's walls in order to conduct a "room by room tactical search." (Id. ¶ 62-65.) After Ming -- along with a large alligator -- was located by the window camera, the police stopped the room-by-room search, sealed the apartment and spoke with several experts in animal rescue who were on location, including Robert Cook, the Chief Veterinarian of the Wildlife Conservation Society, to determine what to do next. (Id. ¶¶ 70-71; Polito Oct. 4 Report.)

In a maneuver that police and Cook say was intended to minimize the risk to the tiger and to those in the area (see Affidavit of Robert Cook dated Feb. 10, 2004, Ex. E to Najib Decl.), an NYPD officer rappelled off the side of the building from a seventh-floor window and, through a half open window of Yates's apartment, shot Ming with a tranquilizer dart. (Defs.' Rule 56.1 ¶¶ 84, 90.) Ming charged at the window, breaking the glass, and then ran through the apartment, hid in another room and fell unconscious fifteen minutes later. (Id. ¶¶ 91-94.) Several ESU officers, along with members of the Wildlife Conservation Society, entered the apartment to remove Ming and the six-foot-long alligator, both of which were transported to an animal refuge area. (Id. ¶¶ 97, 101-102.) The police canvassed the building in search of other wild animals, did not find any, and then exited the apartment, leaving it under the supervision of the New York City Housing Authority. (Defs.' Rule 56.1 ¶¶ 108, 109, 111; Investigation Report, Ex. K to Najib Decl.) The entire rescue was videotaped. (See Exs. DDD, EEE and FFF to Najib Decl.)

That evening, New York City police detective Jose Ortiz, the only defendant identified by name in the complaint, traveled to Philadelphia to interview Yates, who had been admitted to University of Pennsylvania Hospital for continued treatment of his injuries. (Defs.' Rule 56.1 ¶¶ 112, 115.) Yates told Ortiz that he had purchased Ming from a woman in Minnesota for $3,500; that he had owned "many wild animals in the past, including monkeys, alligators and scorpions"; and that he had lied to medical personnel about what had caused his wounds. (Reckless Endangerment Report dated Oct. 4, 2003, Ex. L to Najib Decl.) Yates insisted that the only animals he currently possessed were Ming and the alligator. (Id.) He had raised the alligator -- whose piquant name was Al -- for about eight years, since it was a mere hatchling. (Yates Dep. at 134:20-135:5.)

Detective Ortiz applied the next day for a warrant to search the apartment. (Defs.' Rule 56.1 ¶ 117.) In his affidavit to the state court in support of the warrant, Ortiz attested that there is reasonable cause to believe that the following property may be found: documents of ownership of and purchasing of exotic animals, medical record for exotic animals, enclosures or cages for exotic animals and evidence of the crimes of Reckless Endangerment, PL 120.25, and Possession of a Wild Animal, NYCC 161.01, including but not limited to:

a. evidence of ownership, maintenance, health care, and expenses of exotic animals including but not limited to . receipts for goods and services tending to demonstrate cash transactions or financial transfers relating to the possession of exotic animals..

(Affidavit of Jose Ortiz in Support of Search Warrant dated Oct. 5, 2003 ΒΆ 2, Ex. Q to Najib Decl.) Based on this information, Acting New York State Supreme Court Justice Michael Obus signed the search warrant, which noted that there was "reasonable cause to believe" that documents and other things related to the ownership and purchasing of exotic animals "may be found" at Yates's apartment. (Search Warrant, Ex. R to Najib Decl.) ...

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