In California, there is nothing inherently illegal about leaving a pet locked in a car. But if doing so endangers an animal's health or well-being, it is against the law, according to California Penal Code 597.7 PC.
In other words, this law prohibits leaving an animal unattended in a motor vehicle if the conditions would endanger its health or well-being. This type of case is considered an infraction punishable by a $100 fine but could be charged as a misdemeanor crime if the animal suffers great bodily injury.
PC 597.7(a) says, “A person shall not leave or confine an animal in any unattended motor vehicle under conditions that endanger the health or well-being of an animal due to heat, cold, lack of adequate ventilation, or lack of food or water, or other circumstances that could reasonably be expected to cause suffering, disability, or death to the animal.”
“(b) (1) This section does not prevent a person from taking reasonable steps that are necessary to remove an animal from a motor vehicle if they have 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.”
“(d) (1) This section does not prevent a peace officer, firefighter, humane officer, animal control officer, or other emergency responder from removing an animal from a motor vehicle if the animal's safety appears to be in immediate danger…”
As noted, you could face a fine if you're found guilty of this infraction. If the animal suffers harm due to your actions, the charge could be escalated to a misdemeanor, and you could potentially even spend time in jail if convicted. Let's review this state law in more detail below.
What Does the Law Say?
PC 597.7 prohibits leaving or confining an animal in any unattended motor vehicle under conditions that endanger their well-being due to heat, cold, lack of adequate ventilation, or lack of food or water that could reasonably be expected to cause suffering, disability, or death to the animal.
Specific things to note about this law:
- PC 597.7 applies to any animal left unattended in a vehicle, not just cats and dogs.
- The animal doesn't necessarily have to suffer harm for you to be guilty under PC 597.7. Law enforcement just needs to show that the conditions of confinement were potentially dangerous to the animal's health.
- A person who removes an animal from a vehicle is not criminally liable if they determine the car is locked or there is no reasonable way to remove it.
What Are Some Examples?
EXAMPLE 1: John, an executive, leaves his Golden Retriever, Max, in his car while attending a business meeting. The vehicle is parked in direct sunlight on a day when temperatures reach 95 degrees Fahrenheit. John is gone for three hours, and Max has no access to water or ventilation during this time. John can be cited or charged under PC 597.7 because of the threat to Max's health due to excessive heat and lack of water.
EXAMPLE 2: Susan leaves her cat in her car while she attends a party. She stays all night, leaving the cat in the car without water access for more than 12 hours. Although the temperatures are not necessarily dangerous, Susan may be cited under PC 597.7 because the lack of water could cause the cat to be severely dehydrated.
EXAMPLE 3: Robert leaves his Husky, Snow, in his SUV while he runs into the grocery store for 15 minutes. The day is mild, with temperatures around 70 degrees Fahrenheit, and the windows are cracked open for ventilation. Robert would not be guilty under PC 597.7 because the conditions do not endanger the health or well-being of Snow.
What are the Related Laws?
Several California laws are related to Penal Code 597.7 PC, including the following:
- Penal Code 597 PC – animal abuse and cruelty;
- Penal Code 597.5 PC – dogfighting laws;
- Penal Code 597a PC – transport animal in a cruel manner;
- Penal Code 596 PC – poisoning someone's animal;
- Penal Code 399 PC – fail to control dangerous animals.
What Are the Penalties for PC 597.7?
The penalties for leaving an animal unattended in a vehicle in unsafe circumstances depend mainly on how the animal is affected.
A violation of PC 597.7 can be charged either as an infraction or a misdemeanor, depending on the animal's condition. Under normal circumstances, PC 597.7 PC is an infraction. The penalties include the following:
- If you're cited for violating the law, you face a maximum fine of $100, provided the animal has not suffered great bodily injury due to your actions. If more than one animal is left in the vehicle, the fine is $100 per animal.
- A misdemeanor charge is more serious and is usually pursued when the animal has suffered great bodily harm or death due to being left in the vehicle. If you're convicted of a misdemeanor under this law, you could face imprisonment in a county jail for not more than six months, a fine not exceeding $500, or both.
What Are the Defenses for PC 597.7?
There are several strategies that a California criminal defense lawyer may use to fight allegations of violating Penal Code 597.7, as discussed below.
Perhaps we can argue there were no harmful conditions. PC 597.7 only applies when conditions that could endanger the animal's health or well-being exist.
The definitions of unsafe conditions can be ambiguous and difficult for law enforcement and prosecutors to prove. If you can show that the animal was left in conditions that posed no threat to the animal's well-being, and if the animal is uninjured, you may be able to get the charge dismissed.
Perhaps we can argue that there was a lack of knowledge. You may say that you reasonably believed the conditions did not harm the animal, so your actions were not willful or negligent.
Perhaps we can argue there was an emergency. If you can show that you had no choice but to leave the pet in the vehicle due to an emergency, this can be a valid defense against PC 597.7
Perhaps we can argue that you are the victim of a false accusation. Occasionally, someone may falsely accuse another person of leaving a pet unattended as retaliation or harassment. If you can show evidence that the claims are false, you may be able to get the charge dismissed. Contact our law firm for a case review and to discuss legal options. Eisner Gorin LLP has offices in Los Angeles, California.