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Is it legal to break into a hot car to save an unattended pet in New York?

Before you smash that big rock through the window of a sweltering car to rescue an unattended animal, it might be a good idea to understand whether it actually is legal to do so in New York State.

Many people wouldn’t think twice to save a pet in distress, but if you damage a vehicle to rescue an unattended animal from a hot car, be prepared to face charges. In New York, someone who smashes a window could open themselves up to charges of criminal mischief in the fourth degree, a class A misdemeanor, for destroying property with a value of under $250, which could result in a sentence of up to a year in jail. If the window costs more than $250, charges of criminal mischief in the third degree—a felony—could be filed, which could result in a state prison sentence.

When an animal is in “imminent” danger of death or serious physical injury due to exposure to extreme heat (or cold) and the vehicle’s owner cannot be promptly located, only “a police officer, peace officer, or peace officer acting as an agent of a duly incorporated humane society” can free the animal, according to the state’s Agriculture and Markets Law (article 26, section § 353-d). Since the officer is the only one who can enter the car legally, the best course of action for a concerned citizen is to call 911.

Officers will not be held criminally or civilly liable for actions taken reasonably and in good faith in carrying out the provisions of this section. There are similar laws in 18 other states and Washington, D.C.

It is never a good idea to leave a pet unattended in a vehicle on a hot day, even for a few minutes. On a 70-degree day, the temperature inside a vehicle can climb to 89 degrees in 10 minutes, according to the American Veterinary Medical Foundation (AVMF); in 20 minutes, it could rise to 99 degrees. In 85-degree weather, the mercury inside a parked car can reach upwards of 114 degrees in just 20 minutes.

Leaving an animal in a hot car—or a freezing one—could cost you $50 to $100 for the first offense and $100 to $250 if it happens again in New York State, according to the state Agriculture and Markets Law (article 26, section § 353-d(5)).

Twelve states have “good Samaritan” laws that allow anybody to break a window to rescue a pet in good faith. Many of those 12 states also grant criminal and civil immunity to the individual who breaks into the car to save the pet. Several other states allow a good Samaritan to break into a car to rescue an animal, but require them to contact the police before beforehand for the action to be considered legal. Similar measures are pending in states without “hot car” laws.

While most “hot car” laws apply to animals generally, in New York, the law applies to any type of companion animal, according to the Animal Legal Defense Fund. Other states’ laws vary. It’s just cats and dogs who can be rescued under Colorado, Louisiana, Maryland and Minnesota laws (sorry, ferrets). Livestock are specifically exempt from Indiana, North Carolina and Kansas laws (sorry, cows).

Pets in New Jersey and West Virginia are out of luck if left for an extended period of time in a hot vehicle. Although it currently is illegal to leave a pet in a hot car in those states, no one has the legal authority to break into the owner’s car to save the pet—yet. Fortunately, “hot car” bills are pending in those states.

So before you smash that big rock through the window of a sweltering car to rescue an unattended animal, don’t take the law into your own hands: call the police and get help.


Peter J. Pullano, Esq. is Managing Partner of Tully Rinckey PLLC’s Rochester, N.Y. office. Mr. Pullano has more than 30 years of experience in criminal law and has been recognized regionally for his work, including the 2016 Criminal Justice Act Award from the United States District Court for the Western District of New York.

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