Dogs Die in Hot Cars: The Need for Better Laws

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Dog alone in a locked car

You wouldn’t do it to your child – so why do it to your pet?

This is the argument that animal rights advocates have put forth in a bid to criminalise the act of leaving pets unattended inside locked cars.

Animal welfare organisations like the RSPCA have campaigned for Australian states and territories to replicate laws recently introduced in the US state of Tennessee which give ‘good Samaritans’ the right to break into cars to free animals in distress.

Animal rights groups persistently warn owners not to leave pets alone in cars, as they may experience heat exhaustion which can quickly lead to death, or oxygen deprivation due to lack of ventilation.

The RSPCA says it can take just six minutes for a dog to die of heat exhaustion – with temperatures in cars potentially rising to over 75 degrees in a matter of minutes. Vets have also reminded pet owners that tragedy can occur even in the winter months due to the ‘greenhouse effect.’

Despite this, the RSPCA reported receiving 1,097 calls for animals in distress in parked cars in the last year alone.

So is the time ripe for Australia to take a tougher stance against those who neglect their pets?

The Law in Australia

There are no specific laws in NSW which criminalise the act of leaving animals unattended in parked cars, but negligent pet owners may be prosecuted under general animal cruelty laws.

Section 5 of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act requires people in charge of animals to exercise reasonable care, control or supervision to prevent an act of cruelty.

Although the Act does not define ‘animal cruelty’, it may encompass leaving an animal unattended for such a period that it suffers the effects of heat exhaustion or oxygen deprivation.

The offence carries a maximum penalty of 6 months imprisonment and/or a fine of $5,500.

The penalty increases to 2 years imprisonment and/or a fine of $22,000 if the animal dies as a result.

Strangely, the Act does contain a specific law against leaving dogs tied up on utes. Section 10 makes it an offence to tether or authorise the tethering of an animal for an ‘unreasonable length of time, or by means of an unreasonably heavy, or unreasonably short, tether.’ The maximum penalty is $5,500 and/or imprisonment for 6 months.

Animal rights advocates say that a similarly specific law is needed to deter owners from locking their pets in cars and thereby exposing them to danger.

Good Samaritans Could be Charged

Sadly, those who break into a car to free a distressed animal may be prosecuted with the offence of ‘intentional or reckless damage’. Section 195 of the Crimes Act says that people who intentionally or recklessly destroy or damage another’s property face a maximum penalty of 5 years imprisonment – or 6 years if they act together with another person.

Australian police have already warned members of the public that they could be charged with this offence if they break into a car to free an animal.

Those charged may, however, seek to raise the common law defence of necessity, which applies if they are able to raise evidence that their actions were necessary to prevent serious injury or danger to the animal. But those charged would still have to go through criminal proceedings, which can be stressful, expensive and time consuming.

For this reason, organisations such as the RSPCA argue that legal reform is necessary to create a specific offence of leaving an animal unattended in a car, and to prevent those who aid animals in distress from being charged under the law.

Laws Overseas

Future changes to the law in NSW could be modelled off those that already exist overseas.

In the United States, 16 states have laws which make it a specific offence to leave an animal unattended in a parked car.

The laws differ between the states, but they are couched in similar terms – making it an offence to leave an animal unattended in conditions where it could be exposed to serious harm or death, or where their health and safety would be endangered. Penalties vary from fines to lengthy terms of imprisonment.

The state of Tennessee goes one step further; allowing people to break into cars in situations where an animal is in ‘imminent danger’ without the risk of criminal prosecution.

The new laws – the first of their kind – came into force earlier this month.

They are similar to laws passed last year which allow good Samaritans to avoid prosecution when breaking into cars to save children in distress.

The new laws require a person to ascertain that the car is locked and that there is no other means of entering, before deciding in ‘good faith’ that the animal is in imminent danger and needs to be removed.

The person must then call police to inform them of their proposed actions, and must use no more force than is necessary to enter the vehicle.

Finally, the person must leave a note on the car’s windscreen advising the owner of what occurred, along with contact details and the location where police will meet them.

Tennessee’s reforms have been applauded by law enforcement officials, but some have raised concerns that they could be used overzealously – or that laypersons may have difficulty in knowing when an animal is in ‘imminent danger.’

In determining whether Australia should take similar steps, animal welfare groups and politicians will likely monitor the effectiveness of the Tennessee laws.

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Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim is an Accredited Criminal Law Specialist with 25 years of experience as a Criminal Defence Lawyer. He is the Principal of Sydney Criminal Lawyers®.

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