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Leaving Animals Unattended in Vehicles

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What Is Wrong With Leaving Animals In Vehicles?

Animals left in vehicles chiefly are exposed to the danger of hyperthermia, or heat stroke.  For example, Sergeant Tom Lovejoy of Arizona accidentally left his K-9 dog in the police car in front of his house for 12 hours in 109 degree heat, resulting in the dog’s death.

The crime of leaving animals unattended in a vehicle is often specifically regulated by local ordinances and municipal codes. These rules prohibit leaving animals in cars with inadequate ventilation or extreme temperatures that will adversely affect its health or well being. The punishments can be severe, but significantly lower than the penalties surrounding leaving children unattended in a vehicle.

What Counts as An Animal?

Determining what counts as an animal may sound like a no-brainer, but statutes will differ on the language. Some statutes only mention cats and dogs, while other statutes are more general. A few statutes only include mammals, so check the statute for exact wording to determine if the law applies. 

What Can a Police Officer Do To Enforce a Law Regarding an Animal In a Vehicle?

Police officers are required to take reasonable steps when enforcing the law. In the case of “rescuing” an animal in a vehicle, the officer may be permitted to smash the window of the vehicle. The police may also take custody of the animal in question.

Can I Be Punished For Leaving an Animal In a Vehicle?

Most state penal codes make it a crime to torture, maim, or mutilate animals.  Some state rules specifically prohibit carrying pets in cars in any cruel or inhumane manner that causes suffering. However, cruelty-to-animal state statutes usually address intentional, wicked conduct, and thus do not specifically apply to cases where owners unintentionally cause a pet’s death by leaving it in a hot car. Also, state legislatures and city councils have recognized that animals are transported in vehicles for a variety of reasons, and many are done so in a safe and reasonable manner. 

However, there has been an increase in public awareness regarding the dangers of hyperthermia to animals over the last 20 years, and, as a result, owners who forget about their dogs in a hot car are unlikely to be subjected to inordinate punishment. As such, leaving an animal unattended in a vehicle may be a misdemeanor in states and cities which choose to enforce these statutes. 

If I am Charged With a Crime, Are There Any Defenses?

There are a few defenses to the misdemeanor of leaving an animal unattended in a vehicle:

  • Language of the statute: As mentioned above, some statutes will not cover every animal. Although household pets are almost always included, other animals like ferrets or horses may not be.
  • Actual danger: The animal must actually be in danger for this law to apply. Leaving a dog or cat in the car for a few minutes to pick up the mail will usually not be enough time to endanger the animal.

If I Want to Recover For Police Damage To My Vehicle After a Rescue Attempt Of An Animal, What Do I Need To Show?

You can sue the police for trespass to chattel, an interference with another person’s property. Although all the elements of trespass to chattel could be met, the difficulties in bringing the suit would be contributory negligence and government immunity.

Contributory negligence is the defense that you caused your own car to be damaged when you left the animal unattended. Government immunity is a doctrine that the government cannot be sued for certain actions because it would needlessly interfere with the government’s ability to function properly.

Do I Need a Criminal Defense Lawyer?

If you are accused of leaving an animal unattended in a vehicle, you should speak to a criminal defense attorney to learn more about your rights, your defenses and the complicated legal system. If the police damaged your car in an attempt to rescue your animal, you should speak to a personal injury attorney to seek recovery.

Photo of page author Ken LaMance

, LegalMatch Law Library Managing Editor and Attorney at Law

Last Modified: 03-28-2018 04:26 AM PDT

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