You can legally break into a hot car to save a dog in California, but proceed at your own risk

Here’s a scenario to ponder on a sweltering summer day: You’re walking down the street when you notice a distressed dog trapped in a locked car. What do you do?

A California law that went into effect in January says that if you’re concerned for a vehicle-bound animal’s safety and can’t find its owner, you’re legally allowed to break into the car to rescue the dog — but only if you call authorities first. You would be expected to wait with the dog until an authority — animal control, fire department, law enforcement or 911 emergency service — arrives to the scene.

The understanding of the law is that if you were to follow the steps above, you’d be in the clear and protected from civil and criminal liabilities that exempt you from paying for property damage or trespassing. But there are some gray areas here, namely pertaining to perception. In response to a tweet about the law (from this author), several people chimed in to argue that if you’re a person of color, a police officer or bystander might not realize that you’re trying to save an animal.

“Be Black & break into that car if you want to. The cops will show up &You AND that dog will be dead. They'll do CPR on the dog though.”

“A sad fact. I suggest finding the nearest guy who looks like me to do it. It makes me sick to say that, but the numbers don't lie.”

“This makes me sad. I just visualized someone being shot while trying to save a dog because they were perceived as a criminal.”

In the wake of some high-profile police shootings over the last several years, there has been an increased national conversation about racism from law enforcement toward minorities. A recent study from Stanford University showed that police require less suspicion to search black and Latino drivers than white drivers. Another found that police in Oakland treat black citizens with less respect than white citizens.

Assemblyman Miguel Santiago — a coauthor of the hot car bill — said race was not a topic of discussion when the law was put forward.

“When you have a good bill with a bipartisan effort, that transcends boundaries of gender, race, religion and sexual orientation. This is based on one’s love for their pets,” he said.

Santiago notes that the bill was created by himself, a Democrat and “dark Latino” and Assemblyman Marc Steinorth, a white Republican.

The intention of the law is to protect the animal. As animal advocates remind people every summer, it takes only 15 minutes for a hot animal to suffer brain damage. On Sunday, police arrested a woman in Ontario after a dead dog was found in the back of a her vehicle, and another distressed dog and cat were rescued.

While the law does not spell out every actionable logistic, Heather Rouhana, Steinorth’s chief of staff, believes that a conversation would take place between law enforcement and the person breaking into the vehicle before any sort of action was taken.

“I imagine that if law enforcement approached the person attempting a rescue, there would be time for questions,” she said.

Of course, that might not always be the reality.

What if the owner of a vehicle returned mid break-in, and disputed the rescuer’s claim that they were gone for a long time?

The law is technically silent on this question, but Rouhana said the amount of time an owner is away from a vehicle does not matter if a rescuer determines the animal is in distress.

“The person on dispatch would ask if they are in clear danger, if they’re unconscious, or something that warrants them in the clear,” she said. “The whole point is that you can’t be trigger-happy and break someone’s window. The point is that the animal has to be in danger of dying.”

Ultimately, the law is intended to save an animal in need. Santiago hopes that the education surrounding the bill will reduce the number of instances when an animal is left in a vehicle.

“The best-case scenario is that it’s not implemented,” he said.

While the hope is that discriminatory action or confusion would not occur if the law was put into practice, it can’t be guaranteed.

It’s illegal to leave an animal unattended in a car that poses danger, just as it’s illegal to leave a child age 6 or younger alone in a car that’s running, has keys in the ignition, or otherwise threatens their safety, without the supervision of someone 12 or older. So ideally, owners will let their sleeping dogs (and cats) lie at home.

Questions? Comments? Tweet @cshalby or email colleen.shalby@latimes.com.

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