You Can Legally Break a Car Window in California

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Normally, breaking someone’s car window in San Francisco (or anywhere in California, really) would land you with hefty fines, and maybe time in jail. In one specific situation, though, you can legally break a stranger’s car window in the City by the Bay, and walk away scot-free — or even with commendations from local first responders.

How? According to a relatively new California law passed in 2016 as part of AB-797, residents can legally break a stranger’s car window if they’re trying to save an animal from the extreme heat of a parked car.

That’s right: Under the proper conditions, you could grab a rock (a specially-designed hammer is the safer choice) and smash someone’s window, and you’d be doing the right thing, legally and morally, according to state lawmakers.

Specifically, AB-797 says that peace officers and first responders can already “take all steps reasonably necessary to remove an animal from a motor vehicle because the animal’s safety appears to be in immediate danger of specified harm,” and expands this protection to all citizens who otherwise follow the provisions of the law.

Especially with California’s recent extreme heatwaves, it’s more important than ever to be aware of AB-797 and the risks of leaving a pet in a hot car. According to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), more than 50 animals died in hot cars in 2019, and 20 have died so far in 2021.

Thankfully, the organization also lists 125 successful rescues from hot cars in 2019, and 64 in 2021. In 2016, a dog was successfully rescued from a hot car near Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. Saving an animal is possible if you know how to proceed.

Importantly, you can’t just go around indiscriminately smashing peoples’ car windows. AB 797 lists several steps you have to take first in order to be in the clear. Just seeing a dog in a parked car, for example, isn’t enough. You have to hold “a reasonable belief that the animal’s safety is in immediate danger from heat, cold, lack of adequate ventilation, lack of food or water, or other circumstances that could reasonably be expected to cause suffering, disability, or death to the animal.”

Maybe you’re the kind of person who hates the idea of leaving any animal alone in a car, and you’d never do that with your own precious Pookie. That’s not enough to warrant breaking into a car to “rescue” an animal, though — the animal has to genuinely be in danger for AB-797 to apply.

If you see an animal in genuine danger, there are still a few steps you need to take before breaking in. First, contact “a local law enforcement agency, the fire department, animal control, or the ‘911’ emergency service” before proceeding. If there’s time, wait for them to arrive and help the animal. If there isn’t, and the animal is in immediate danger (like if they’ve passed out from heat), move ahead.

Remember to check if there’s another way to access the vehicle before smashing anything. AB-797 says that the law applies only if the vehicle “is locked or there is otherwise no reasonable manner for the animal to be removed from the vehicle.”

If a door is unlocked, just open it — don’t break the window.

But should breaking a window be the only way in, remember too that the law says AB-797 applies only when a person “used no more force to enter the vehicle and remove the animal from the vehicle than was necessary under the circumstances.” Break a window to get in if necessary, but don’t smash all the other windows or slash the person’s tires because you’re angry that they left their pet in danger.

PETA makes an emergency window-breaking hammer specifically for rescuing pets. Auto glass companies also recommend using the headrest from your own car to break the glass without necessarily smashing it.

Be careful — breaking a window could injure you, so it’s a last resort. PETA also recommends gathering several witnesses who can vouch for the fact that the animal is in danger.

Finally, once you’ve removed the at-risk animal, you can’t whisk it back to your home for treats and snuggles. You must wait “with the animal in a safe location, out of the elements but reasonably close to the vehicle, until a peace officer, humane officer, animal control officer, or another emergency responder arrives.” Your role is to save the animal from immediate danger — the next step is up to professional first responders or animal care pros.

There are still risks if you use AB-797. Someone could challenge whether your decision to smash a window was “reasonable”, and there’s a chance you could end up taking on responsibility for the animal’s care, especially if you didn’t immediately turn it over to a first responder. Another caveat: I’m not a lawyer, and this isn’t legal advice — always consult with a professional advisor when it comes to your specific legal rights.

Despite the risks, people may still choose to use AB-797 and smash a window to save an animal’s life. The law also provides stiff penalties (including potential jail time) for owners who leave their pet in a hot car, especially if the pet is injured or dies. Hopefully, that will provide an incentive for owners to take care of their pets, and make window-smashing rescues unnecessary.

So, if you do come across a dog trapped inside a car on a sweltering day — and find no evidence of the owner coming back soon or another means to get inside the vehicle—by all means, go Lemonade-era Beyoncé on a window.

(Also: What’s the most stereotypically California thing about AB-797? A law allowing you to save a dog from a hot car was enacted in 2016, but a similar law allowing you to save a child wasn’t passed until 2021.)

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