Breaking & Entering - Legality of Freeing Pets from Locked Cars
Updated: Jan 27
According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, the temperature inside a car on a 70 degrees F day can reach 99 degrees F in twenty minutes. So time is of the essence to free an animal from a locked hot car by breaking in to rescue it, but can you be a Good Samaritan to save the pet's life without civil liability for damages to the vehicle entered?
The answer is yes, if you live in one of the fourteen states that have laws on the books to protect anyone who takes action to save a life. Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Kansas, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Ohio, Oregon, Tennessee, Vermont and Wisconsin all allow any person to break into a car to rescue an animal without being liable for damages; but only if the rescue is done under certain circumstances. Indiana has a similar law in place, but it says that a Good Samaritan would only be liable for half of cost of damage to car in making entry. An initiative to extend the same immunity to Georgia this year passed that state's Senate, but failed to pass in the House.
The requirements for a rescuer to avoid civil liability for damage to the vehicle generally include 1) determining that the vehicle is locked and there is no reasonable way to enter; 2) having a good faith and reasonable belief that entry is necessary because the animal is in imminent danger of suffering harm; 3) notifying law enforcement before making entry into the vehicle; and 4) remaining nearby the vehicle with the animal until law enforcement arrives.
Fifteen other states (Delaware, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Virginia and Washington) permit forcible entry by law enforcement and other officers (i.e. firefighters or animal control officers). Additional protection for dogs to prevent them from overheating in cars was recently approved in Illinois. Effective in 2019, the law requires police vehicles for K-9 officers to have a system for monitoring the interior temperature of a police car. Illinois' new Police Service Dog Protection Act also requires that alerts be made when the interior temperature of the vehicle reaches 85 degrees F.
The laws of each state also vary with respect to what type of animal can be rescued with civil immunity from damages to the vehicle. Some state statutes use the broad term "animal"; some states apply a more limited category of "domestic animal" or "household pet"; while yet others restrict civil immunity to only the rescue of cats and dogs.
Check your state's law to confirm who is allowed make forcible entry (anyone, or only certain officials?); under what circumstances entry can be made; and which types of animals can be rescued to confirm if a civil immunity exemption from liability for damages is available to a Good Samaritan.