Animals in Vehicles: California

It is not uncommon for people to leave their animal in their car unattended. Regardless of lack of bad intent, careless decisions like these pose a serious threat to the health of the animal, and this threat regularly turns out to be fatal. Animals left in hot cars by their owners often suffer heat stroke and die because, even if the weather feels cool outside, the internal temperature of a car can rise from 72°F to 112°F in a matter of minutes.

The actions concerned citizens may legally take to intervene varies from state to state. California Penal Code § 597.7 makes it illegal to leave an animal alone in a parked vehicle, but simply punishing the vehicle owner does not offer any immediate aid to the animal in what could be a life or death situation. Previously, California law only allowed peace officers, humane officers, or animal control officers to remove an animal from a parked vehicle without the consent of the owner as long as the animal is reasonably in danger. This removal could include opening a door if it is unlocked or breaking a window if all doors are locked.

Recently, California improved its law concerning animals left unattended in vehicles. California Assembly Bill 797 exempts any person from civil or criminal liability who removes the animal, so long as the animal’s danger is reasonably ascertained. This law applies to animals who are endangered from heat, cold, lack of adequate ventilation, lack of food or water, or any other circumstance that could reasonably result in suffering, disability, or death to the animal. (AB 797, Sec. 2, § 597.7)

Bill 797 provides a specific procedure that must be followed before removing the animal. Knowing these steps is important in avoiding civil and criminal liability. As a rescuer, you must (1) deem it necessary to enter the car, (2) call 911, (3) use no more force than necessary, and (4) stay with the animal until a first responder arrives. If you have a reasonable belief that the animal could suffer disability or death, you are legally allowed to take these reasonable steps to get the animal out of the car, even if they involve property damage and trespass. Once the animal is safely removed from the car, remain reasonably near the car, and wait for a first responder, animal control, or law enforcement officer, who will take over rescue measures from there. Check your state statute to see what rescue efforts are protected.

Author: Michelle V. Paul
Contributors: Joseph Darwish and Marie Masters