WILMINGTON — Dogs and other animals locked in hot cars can be injured, even killed, in a matter of minutes, according to the Humane Society of the United States. But if you see a dog, what should you do? With temperatures on the rise, the question is on a lot of people’s minds.
Currently, there are several Facebook posts suggesting legal options should you see an animal stuck in a hot car. Few of these posts cite specific regulations. In North Carolina, a law passed in 2013 allows any law enforcement officer, firefighter, or rescue squad worker who believes an animal in danger to use any “reasonable means under the circumstances” to rescue a domestic pet from a car. There’s no state law to allow civilians to so.
Even for first responders, it can be a hard call; they must decide if breaking a window or forcing open a car door is “reasonable.” That’s why Cathryn Lindsay, spokeswoman for the Wilmington PD, suggested that anyone who sees an animal in a hot car should first call 911.
But what if the situation seems desperate, if the animal is passing out, or appears ill? In short, if you’re the only one on the scene, can you break a window?
“It’s not illegal if the dog is in distress,” Lindsay said. “The tricky part is, how can you prove the dog is in distress?”
Documentation may or may not help, depending on the situation. But the big issue is intent. In the extreme situation where breaking a car window seems like the only choice, it is important that the animal was your only concern, according to Lindsay.
“You should only consider this in the most extreme situations,” Lindsay said. “It’s highly situational. The key is intent. If it’s clear that the intent is not malicious, it would be hard to prosecute.”
While the Wilmington Police Department may not press charges, there’s nothing to stop the owner of a vehicle from suing someone who breaks their window. Regardless of whether a dog is in distress or not, if you break someone’s window, they can sue you. Whether or not their lawsuit goes anywhere is another matter.
Again, to be clear, the Wilmington PD advises people to call 911 first. It’s also important to not get involved if the situation gets confrontational. Whether or not the police press charges for breaking a window to save a pet, if you are involved in a physical fight you could easily face assault charges.
“Again, to be clear, you should definitely call 911, you should definitely not get involved in a confrontation,” Lindsay said.
Laws vary considerably between municipalities, counties and states, and Wilmington PD encourages concerned residents to contact their own local law enforcement.