HARTFORD, Conn. – Greenwich police Officer Andrew Kelly thought he had found a missing 16-year-old boy when he saw a dark figure behind a frosted bathtub shower door while searching a home. He slid the door open and discovered a crocodile staring him in the face.
The boy wasn't at the house and was later found unharmed. But the search resulted in the arrest of the homeowner, father of two Gary Ryder, on charges of misdemeanor possession of a reptile and felony risk of injury to a minor.
Ryder's case turned into a seven-year legal battle that resulted in the state Supreme Court ruling Wednesday that officers searched Ryder's home illegally without a warrant in 2004. The 4-2 decision ordered a lower court judge to dismiss the criminal case, a ruling that was criticized by dissenting Justice Dennis G. Eveleigh for its "potential chilling effect" on police officers' actions during emergencies.
The majority of the court, however, believed that Kelly and Officer Robert Smurlo had no evidence that the boy, who is the adopted son of Ryder's estranged partner, was in any danger. The majority also rejected the officers' argument that they were allowed to enter Ryder's home without a warrant under the emergency exception to the Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizures.
There was also a dispute over the size of the crocodile, which Ryder sent to a Florida reptile breeder after his arrest. Kelly said the crocodile was 6 to 7 feet long, while Ryder said it was only 3 feet long and had a bite radius smaller than a dog's.
Ryder, an exotic-animal enthusiast who said he bought the crocodile online, pleaded no contest to the reptile possession charge in 2006 and paid a $35 fine after a judge refused to bar evidence obtained during the search. But he retained his right to appeal and represented himself. Prosecutors dropped the risk of injury charge, which carries one to 10 years in prison.
"It's been nearly seven years since my home was burglarized by Greenwich police," Ryder told The Associated Press on Wednesday. "The moral of the story is you have to be acutely aware of what your rights are and you have to stand up for those rights. You and I are protected in our homes from wrongful government intrusion."
Prosecutor Robert Scheinblum, who argued the Supreme Court appeal for the state, declined to comment Wednesday, saying he was still reviewing the ruling. Greenwich police Chief David Ridberg didn't return a phone message. Prosecutors could ask the state Supreme Court to reconsider the ruling or appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In August 2004, the teen's father frantically called emergency dispatchers to say his two teenage sons had been missing for about 24 hours. The father, Frank Verkaik of Vermont, told dispatchers that his sons took a train to Greenwich for the weekend to visit friends and didn't return.
Police said Verkaik finally got in touch with one of his sons, who said the other boy was at Ryder's home. Ryder and Verkaik had lived together several years earlier with Verkaik's two adopted children and Ryder's two adopted children.
Police said two other officers went to Ryder's home and talked with him, but Ryder told them the boy was somewhere else. Officers didn't find the boy at the address Ryder supplied.
Kelly and Smurlo went into Ryder's home later the same day when he wasn't home and found the crocodile. The officers said there were several indications of potential trouble: the fact that a teenager was missing, frantic calls from his father, a BMW convertible parked in the driveway with its top down, a couch sticking out of a garage, no response to repeated calls to the home, Ryder's mistaken information on the boy's whereabouts and clothes strewn around a cot in a first-floor room that were visible from the outside.
While the majority of the Supreme Court said those facts weren't enough to enter the home without a warrant, Eveleigh and Chief Justice Chase T. Rogers said there was enough evidence of a possible emergency.
"As a result of the majority's decision, will officers demand heightened evidence of an emergency before responding to citizens' concerns that someone is in danger of physical harm or in need of assistance?" Eveleigh wrote. "Will officers, acting in their community caretaking role, be more hesitant to make warrantless searches for fear that their 'prompt assessment of sometimes ambiguous information concerning potentially serious consequences' ... proved, in judicial hindsight, to be misplaced?"
Ryder tried to sue the Greenwich police department for millions, but the efforts failed. He said he's learned a lot about the law over the past seven years and is ready to go to the U.S. Supreme Court if prosecutors appeal.
"After a seven-year battle, the only thing that I get back is $35 with no criminal conviction," he said.