Let Cooler Heads Prevail: What To Do About Unattended Animals In Cars

From the Staff of Philip J. Dabney, P.C.

New Mexicans, better than anybody else, know how dangerous heat can be. Because of this, we bring extra water on hikes, we are grateful for any precipitation, and we carefully plan our activities on hot days. However, we still hear tragic tales of pets left unattended to suffer heat stroke in hot cars while their owners are out shopping. Despite knowing how dangerous heat can be, many New Mexicans often do not realize just how hot a car can get in such a short span of time. On an 80° Fahrenheit day, the cabin of a car can easily reach 120° Fahrenheit within 10 minutes. That means that heat stroke is not only possible, but probable.

Some states have taken action to protect pets. Recent legislation not only explicitly criminalizes leaving pets in cars, but also allows one to intervene and free those pets. “Good Samaritan” laws are becoming increasingly common, with eight states having adopted similar legislation within the last three years. These laws suspend civil, and in some cases criminal liability for those who act to save pets in cars. Tennessee was the first state to pass a Good Samaritan law, and it has served as the model statute for other states. Originally, Tennessee’s Good Samaritan law only allowed for one to enter a vehicle to rescue a child. In 2015, it was amended to also protect animals. This Good Samaritan law requires a process to be followed to ensure the rights of the pet and vehicle owner are also respected.

First, one must determine whether the car in question is locked. Second, one must have a good faith belief that an entry is necessary. Third, one must contact emergency services prior to entry. Fourth, one must place a note on the car’s windshield explaining why the entry was made and where the removed animal is. Fifth, one must remain with the removed animal in a safe location reasonably close to the vehicle. Finally, one must not use more force than is necessary to enter the car.

The process provides law-abiding citizens with protection against having their windows smashed, but also allows for the emergency rescue of an animal in imminent danger. Arizona has a similar law requiring the same procedure. Colorado’s good samaritan law is a little more stringent than the Tennessee standard. It requires that one also make a good faith effort to locate the owner of the car prior to any entry. However, the Colorado law suspends criminal liability as well as civil liability.

New Mexico, unfortunately, has not passed such a Good Samaritan law, and is among the states that do not explicitly criminalize leaving pets unattended in cars. This does not mean it is not illegal, however. Los Alamos Animal Control will cite the owner with Animal Cruelty, a misdemeanor, for leaving pets unattended in a hot car. Likewise, just because there is no law suspending criminal and civil liability for one who enters a car to assist endangered pets does not mean that there is no defense. New Mexico allows for a necessity defense in criminal cases.

The essence of a necessity defense is that the situation is so severe that a reasonable person would not be able to resist taking action. With an increasing number of states specifically outlining standards for this situation, it could be argued that a reasonable person could not resist acting when an animal is in imminent danger. However, the lack of case law, both in New Mexico and nationally, does not guarantee that this defense will be successful, or even available in cases involving animals.

However, there are other ways to help an animal in distress. The first is prevention. Do not leave your pets in your car. Debra Kramer, the Public Safety Aide Supervisor with Los Alamos Animal Control, urges everyone to leave their pets at home when it is hot out. Your pets are always safest at home, with plenty of food and water. However, if you must bring your pets with you, do not leave them in the car. Even with proper ventilation, cars can still get hot.

If you come across a pet left unattended in a car, you should contact law enforcement before doing anything else. They are trained to handle situations like this. Animal control is trained to assess the situation before making any decisions. Law enforcement officers are trained to open cars without damaging them, and often have the tools available to do so. If animal control and law enforcement both agree that the animal must be removed from the car, only then is the car opened, and the animal is immediately taken to a veterinarian for medical attention. Removal of the animal is a last resort, and the decision to remove should not be taken lightly.

There is a delicate balance between the property rights of the owner and the health and wellbeing of their pet that must be always be considered. Animal control and law enforcement are trained to make that consideration, whereas the average person may not be.

The heat is a deadly force that New Mexicans are very familiar with, and we should take all necessary steps to protect ourselves and our pets from it. The best way we can do that is to leave our pets at home when it is hot out, never leave them in our cars. Whenever encountering pets in a hot car, use common sense in addressing the situation, which should include contacting law enforcement.