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Breaking a Vehicle Window to Rescue a Dog in California

This past week, I came across several memes on Facebook about what you’re supposed to do in California if you encounter a dog or other animal locked inside a vehicle with the windows up. The concern, of course, is that the interior of the car will overheat on a summer day and the animal will die. Being the legal research nerd that I am, I took it upon myself to look up the relevant and bore — er, I mean, share — that law with all of you.

It’s also an opportunity for me to share a lot of the dog photos I’ve accumulated over the years.

Beebee (left); Snooks (right)

Anyway, there are two questions I’ll answer:

  • What California law prohibits leaving a dog or other animal in a hot car?
  • What California laws allow a bystander who sees a dog locked in a hot car to break the window of that car to rescue that dog or animal?

#1: What law prohibits leaving a dog in a hot car?
The relevant California law here is Section 597.7 of California’s Penal Code. Section 597.7 has a lot of subsections to it so I would encourage you to read the actual text of the statute if you have a situation that involves an animal having been left in a hot vehicle. As I’ve mentioned before, my posts are ultimately just my paraphrasing of the relevant law. I’ve included links in this post and in all my other posts to the relevant code sections in California should you want to do your own research.

Anyway, the subsection that addresses the leaving of animals in hot cars is Section 597.7(a), which says:

 “A person shall not leave or confine an animal in any unattended motor vehicle under conditions that endanger the health or well-being of an animal due to heat, cold, lack of adequate ventilation, or lack of food or water, or other circumstances that could reasonably be expected to cause suffering, disability, or death to the animal.”

I’ve bolded and underlined a couple of parts in Section 597.7(a) that I feel are important. This is not to say that the other parts that I have not bolded and underlined are unimportant.

  • This law is not specific to dogs. Most of the time, though, the animal is a dog left in a car, but it could be any animal.
  • The car or vehicle in question has to be unattended.
  • The conditions in which the animal is left have to endanger their health or well-being.
  • The danger posed by the conditions is due to circumstances that can (a) reasonably be expected to, (b) cause suffering, disability, or death to the animal. Examples of such conditions include, but are not limited to, heat, cold, lack of adequate ventilation, and lack of food or water.

Because this is the Penal Code, we’re talking about criminal liability. The penalties for violating Section 597.7(a) are described in Section 597.7(c):

“Unless the animal suffers great bodily injury, a first conviction for violation of this section is punishable by a fine not exceeding one hundred dollars ($100) per animal. If the animal suffers great bodily injury, a violation of this section is punishable by a fine not exceeding five hundred dollars ($500), imprisonment in a county jail not exceeding six months, or by both a fine and imprisonment. Any subsequent violation of this section, regardless of injury to the animal, is also punishable by a fine not exceeding five hundred dollars ($500), imprisonment in a county jail not exceeding six months, or by both a fine and imprisonment.”

The penalties are, unfortunately, just a fine or a misdemeanor conviction, depending on whether the animal in question suffers great bodily injury or not. Subsequent convictions for violating Section 597.7(a) are, unfortunately, still just misdemeanors.

Buttercup

#2: What laws allow a bystander who sees a dog locked in a hot car to break the window of that car to rescue that dog or animal?
This is probably what most readers are interested in. Normally, self-help or “taking the law into your own hands” is not something that the law allows or encourages. In other words, taking the law into your own hands can often cause you significant legal trouble.

Animals left in hot vehicles, however, is an exception. If you fulfill certain criteria, you can “take the law into your own hands” and rescue any animals you encounter. Of course, I don’t recommend you take the law into your own hands because it’s not a guarantee the protections I describe below will apply. If you do take the law into your own hands and, for example, break a car window to get an animal out, assume from the outset that you’ll have to pay for said window until it’s determined otherwise.

Anyway, that said, the relevant laws in the California Penal Code relating to “bystander rescue” are in Section 597.7(b)(1) and (2). 597.7(b)(1) says:

“(1) This section does not prevent a person from taking reasonable steps that are necessary to remove an animal from a motor vehicle if the person holds a reasonable belief that the animal’s safety is in immediate danger from heat, cold, lack of adequate ventilation, lack of food or water, or other circumstances that could reasonably be expected to cause suffering, disability, or death to the animal.”

Again, I’ve bolded and underlined the parts I think are important here, namely that the steps the bystander takes must be (1) reasonable, and (2) necessary to remove the animal from the vehicle. Additionally, the bystander must have a reasonable belief that the animal’s safety is in immediate danger that could reasonable be expected to cause suffering disability, or death.

I’m not going to go over Section 597.7(d). That section lays out special rules and requirements that emergency personnel (e.g. police officers, firefighters, animal control officers, etc.) who remove an animal from a vehicle have to follow. That’s going to apply to a minority of situations. If your situation is one of them, I encourage you to read the text of Section 597.7(d).

Criminal Liability 
The steps that the bystander must take first before attempting rescue are recited in Section 597.7(b)(2):

“(2) A person who removes an animal from a vehicle in accordance with paragraph (1) is not criminally liable for actions taken reasonably and in good faith if the person does all of the following:

(A) Determines the vehicle is locked or there is otherwise no reasonable manner for the animal to be removed from the vehicle.

(B) Has a good faith belief that forcible entry into the vehicle is necessary because the animal is in imminent danger of suffering harm if it is not immediately removed from the vehicle, and, based upon the circumstances known to the person at the time, the belief is a reasonable one.

(C) Has contacted a local law enforcement agency, the fire department, animal control, or the “911” emergency service prior to forcibly entering the vehicle.

(D) Remains with the animal in a safe location, out of the elements but reasonably close to the vehicle, until a peace officer, humane officer, animal control officer, or another emergency responder arrives.

(E) Used no more force to enter the vehicle and remove the animal from the vehicle than was necessary under the circumstances.

(F) Immediately turns the animal over to a representative from law enforcement, animal control, or another emergency responder who responds to the scene.”

Daisy. Rescued by Rocket Dog Rescue (rocketdogrescue.org)

The six steps, therefore, are in Sections 597.7(b)(2)(A) to 597.7(b)(2)(F). I would paraphrase them as:

  • Ascertain whether there is a quick and easy way to remove the animal (e.g. check to see if the vehicle is locked or not)
  • Assess the situation and come to the good faith conclusion that forcible entry (e.g. breaking the window) is necessary to prevent an imminent harm
  • Contact the police or fire department for the area. Most of the time, this just means calling 911.
  • Once you’ve extracted the animal, stay with the animal close to the vehicle until help arrives
  • Use only the minimal force needed to effect the rescue
  • Turn the animal over to the authorities when they arrive.

If a bystander satisfies all of these steps, they are not criminally liable for, for instance, breaking the vehicle’s window to extract the animal. Unfortunately, whether these steps were indeed satisfied ultimately is not up to the bystander. For example, they might believed they used the minimal force necessary, but a police officer, prosecutor, or court of law may disagree. If that happens, then the bystander might fact criminal liability after all.

 

Civil Liability
I’ve only talked about the California Penal Code so far. As you can hopefully guess, the Penal Code only talks about criminal liability. Any action — including breaking a window to rescue an animal — could result in both criminal liability and civil liability. As brief background, if criminal liability is proven, then the penalty is generally incarceration of some type. This would include probation, jail time, or prison time. If civil liability is proven, the penalty for that is usually financial. In other words, the civil defendant needs to pay the civil plaintiff X dollars in damages. Criminal and civil liability are independent. It’s absolutely possible — see OJ Simpson’s murder trial from the 1990s — to not be criminally liable for something, but still be civilly liable for that same thing.

Anyway, the governing law for civil liability related to taking the law into your own hands to rescue a trapped animal is in Section 43.100 of the California Civil Code. That section says:

“(a) There shall not be any civil liability on the part of, and no cause of action shall accrue against, a person for property damage or trespass to a motor vehicle, if the damage was caused while the person was rescuing an animal in accordance with subdivision (b) of Section 597.7 of the Penal Code.

(b) The immunity from civil liability for property damage to a motor vehicle that is established by subdivision (a) does not affect a person’s civil liability or immunity from civil liability for rendering aid to an animal.”

Me (left); Monkey (right). Rescued by Animal Rescue Relay (animalrescuerelay.org)

What Section 43.100(a) basically says is that if the bystander complies with the six steps recited I mentioned above (i.e. Sections 597.7(b)(2)(A) to 597.7(b)(2)(F)), then the bystander has no civil liability for property damage related to the rescue. For example, if the bystander had to break a window on a vehicle to get the animal out, then the bystander doesn’t have to pay to replace that window, even if the bystander is sued by the vehicle owner.

However, 43.100(a) has a big exception, which I’ve bolded and underlined: It only affects property damage liability for the motor vehicle. As Section 43.100(b) says, the bystander can face civil liability on other issues. For example, suppose there is a dog trapped in a vehicle on a hot day with the windows shut. A bystander complies with the six steps and breaks the window of the vehicle. Suppose that the dog is passed out by that point and the bystander has to resuscitate the dog somehow. The bystander is successful and the dog survives, but the bystander breaks several of the dog’s ribs during the resuscitation.  In theory, the bystander can be civil liable for the dog’s broken ribs and whatever veterinary bills result. Section 43.100 does not protect the bystander in that situation because the dog’s broken ribs are not a property damage issue pertaining to the motor vehicle.

That said, though, it’s entirely possible the bystander might be saved by some other statute, case, or legal argument. It’s just that Section 43.100 pertains to motor vehicle property damage liability only.

Anyway, I hope all that was helpful and that you enjoyed the dog photos. As always, what I wrote here is based on actual California law which I have both mentioned and linked. However, what I wrote here is also ultimately my paraphrase or interpretation of what California law says. If you are going to rely on what I wrote here, I would highly recommend that you look up the actual statutes I’ve mentioned. I’ve linked them for that purpose.

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Andy Chen

Andy I. Chen is a lawyer licensed to practice law in California and New York. Andy maintains offices in Los Altos, California and Modesto, California. Under the New York Court of Appeals' 2015 decision in Schoenefeld v. State of New York, Andy does not accept cases from those in New York state. He does, however, know many lawyers in New York state and would be happy to make a referral.

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