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It's Now Legal to Break Into Cars to Save Animals in Tennessee

There's obviously some potential for abuse, but the idea is to provide the same protection to pets that the Volunteer State gave children stuck in hot cars last year.

Photo via Flickr user Andrij Bulba

Starting this month, Tennessee residents are allowed to break into parked cars with no legal repercussions, so long as they believe an animal locked inside faces imminent danger. The law is targeted at dogs confined in sweltering cars on sunny days that might be on the brink of suffering heatstroke and dying. But could it be abused by jerks who just like breaking shit and poking around other peoples' property?

Sixteen states have laws on the books against leaving pets unattended in confined vehicles. Yet Tennessee's is a national first insomuch as it extends the right of intervention not just to law enforcement or animal control, but to random civilians, granting them wide protection from civil liability for damage to the vehicle.

The new law expands on one enacted in the state last year permitting civilians to break into locked cars to save minors in danger. That law was also nationally innovative, as 19 states have banned leaving kids unattended in cars, according to the advocacy group KidsandCars.org, but there was no explicit precedent for the right of intervention by passersby. Both measures were proposed by a Republican representative from Greeneville named David Hawk, and apparently motivated by stories of heat stroke deaths where police arrived too late after a concerned citizen had sounded the alarm. (At least 44 children died of heatstroke in locked cars in 2013, the last date for which full data is available, according to KidsandCars. Pet statistics are a bit harder to come by.)

The Volunteer State's break-in provisions lay out a broad procedure one must follow to legally break into a locked car. First you have to determine that the car is locked and that there is no other viable means of entry besides breaking in. Then you must make a "good faith" determination that the creature—whether pet or child—is definitely in imminent danger that requires removing them.

Finally, before breaking in—using no more force than is necessary—you must call law enforcement officials to inform them of the act and seek their counsel. After freeing the animal (or child), you then have to leave a note on the car's windshield explaining the forced entry, providing contact information, and detailing where you'll be awaiting the arrival of law enforcement. This meet-up spot has to be safe from the elements but reasonably close to the parked car.

The hope is that these regulations will ensure the law is only used when absolutely necessary by rational passers-by. And so far, at least, it seems to be receiving a good deal of positive press.

"Animal welfarists are predictably happy with the new law," Joan Heminway, a professor at the University of Tennessee who specializes in animal law, told VICE. "And, I suspect, there are many in the middle who just think this new rule makes sense because it saves the lives of living things, and that just seems right."

Yet some internet denizens have expressed doubts—concerns that are especially visible on forums like Reddit. The question has been posed: How can you accurately judge when an animal is in imminent danger? After all, rights groups have been stressing that pets can, under the worst conditions, die within ten minutes in a hot car, and even on a relatively mild, 78-degree day, a parked car can overheat to 160 degrees quite rapidly, as NBC News reported.

It's easy to envision how overzealous citizens might get a bit trigger-happy when it comes to "saving" animals. After all, the law avoids placing explicit limits on the level of force you can use when breaking in.

"I've... had idiots who don't have any common sense leave me notes when my dogs are in the car ... with the vehicle running [i.e. the air conditioning on]," opioned one Redditor. "Don't give idiots a crowbar."

Representative Hawk hopes that media coverage of the law will help people develop some basic, commonsense metrics for diagnosing risk. In an e-mail exchange with VICE, he cited what he believes are the two big indicators of distress in dogs as determined by doctors: "exceptionally dry, heavy panting, followed by the dog's tongue turning a bluish color."

No guidelines have been provided for diagnosing imminent danger in other animals, at least so far, and their safety is also covered under the law. Hawk suggested he and his colleagues expect there would be very few other types of animals in cars, rendering that moot. But we may well soon hear about a Tennessee resident arguing they had the right to break into a car based on the Talmudic distress signals of a gecko, apparent to them as a gecko-owner but invisible to the rest of us.

Hawk recognizes the law's subjectivity, but believes that it was right not to limit its scope at the outset. Apparently his colleagues agreed, as the animal break-in measure—technically an addition to the child break-in law— passed the Tennessee House with a resounding 90-2 vote, and cleared the Senate unanimously.

"We certainly considered the potential for differing opinions from a caller or callers, law enforcement, emergency responders, animal control, and the animal's owner, just to name a few of the interested parties," Hawk said via email. "Recognizing that crafting legislation is an imperfect process, we did not feel that a specific course of action could be described in law for the many potentially different situations that could occur."

Representative Hawk and Heminway, the animal law expert, both believe that more specific guidelines and limitations will emerge with time, as officials and courts run up against complications and work out the real-world kinks. (To wit, if people do stupid things under the law, they tend to serve as precedent against repetition.)

"We are always open to any suggestions and will be working with the administrative and judicial branches of government to see if some standard operating procedure is needed as we move forward, or if each situation will receive advice on a case by case basis," Hawk added.

According to Heminway, "Interpretations of the law will be undertaken by courts and the legislature only with experience under the new law, which will take a number of years to accumulate, as with interpretations of any new legal rule." She added that Good Samaritan laws like this one are written to be pretty resistant to abuse by bad actors.

Of course, even the best of Good Samaritans can make awful calls. So even if the law can't technically be used for ill, there's a chance that we'll see some strange headlines as Tennessee residents adapt to the new reality. More immediately, the law will probably save a few dogs' lives, which seems well worth the potential for some wrongly shattered windows.