Can you legally smash a car window to save a dog?

As we are about to enjoy a few weeks of hot weather, the issue of people leaving dogs in hot cars will no doubt arise.

A client recently asked me if it was legal for him to smash a car window to rescue a dog. He had seen a dog trapped inside a hot car at a local supermarket, it was 28°c and the owner was nowhere to be seen. Was he entitled to break into the car? It’s a good question and one that – given the weather – concerned members of the public ought to know the answer to.

Leaving animals in hot cars is very dangerous in this kind of weather but before you consider smashing a car window you should be aware of the law.

The official advice from the RSPCA says that if the dog is showing any sign of heatstroke (such as heavy panting, drooling, vomiting or if the dog has passed out), you should call 999 and report it. If a dog dies as a result of being left in a hot car, the owner can be prosecuted for neglect or cruelty under the Animal Welfare Act 2006. However, in this situation your instinct (as mine would be) might be to break into the car to rescue the dog. But be warned – you may find yourself being arrested for criminal damage.

Under the Criminal Damage Act 1971, a person commits an offence if they intentionally or recklessly destroy or damage another person’s property. Criminal damage can carry a prison sentence.

Before charging you, the police (or sometimes the Crown Prosecution Service) would have be satisfied that it is in the “public interest” to prosecute you. This requires the police/CPS to consider the circumstance in which the damage was committed. If one of my clients was under arrest in these circumstances, I would certainly be arguing that a prosecution would not be in the public interest.

But what if you are charged? Would you have a defence? – Potentially.

Section 5 of the Criminal Damage Act 1971 provides the defence of “lawful excuse”. If a person had a genuine belief that the dog needed immediate protection and that it was reasonable in all the circumstances to break into the vehicle to save the dog, the person would likely have a defence. Perhaps you had a real concern that the dog was about to die, could not find the owner and had phoned 999 but been told it would take some time for the police to arrive. If smashing the window was a last resort to save the dog, I would be satisfied that you had a defence.

If you were ultimately charged with criminal damage, it would then be for a court to decide if you had a “lawful excuse”. If the Magistrates Court found you guilty, you would then have an automatic right to appeal to the Crown Court.

This article provides a brief explanation of the law and is in no way a substitute for having a qualified legal professional represent you. If you see a dog in a car and are concerned for its safety, the best advice would always be to ring 999 first and take advice from the police. If you find yourself in police custody, you should always ask for Bhatia Best to ensure your case has the best possible chance of success. Having a solicitor to represent you at the police station is always free of charge.

Article by Ben Brown who is based at our Mansfield Criminal Department.

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