TALLAHASSEE – With summer in full swing, Florida’s HB 131 is getting put to the test.
The bill more commonly known as the “hot car law” was signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott in March and states that anyone who breaks into a locked car to rescue pets or vulnerable people cannot be held liable for civil damages.
Rebecca Wisch, associate editor at the Animal Legal & Historical Center at Michigan State University, said Florida is one of three states to have such laws on the books; the others are Wisconsin and Tennessee.
“They’re unique in that they allow an average person who is not a professional or first responder to enter the vehicle and use reasonable force to remove an animal or endangered person,” Wisch told the Florida Record.
However, just because someone can break into a car without penalty doesn’t mean the law can be applied to justify any situation. Anyone wishing to take action under the hot car law must first check that the vehicle is locked, call 911 or law enforcement before breaking in, and remain with the vehicle until emergency responders arrive.
In theory, someone could try to use the law as justification for breaking into a car while claiming they saw someone inside of it, but Wisch doesn’t think that would end well.
“Anyone who does something like that would be on truTV’s ‘World’s Dumbest Criminals’ show,” she said.
The U.S. Department of Transportation reported 32 children died as a result of hot cars in 2014, the last year for which reports are available.
Additionally, PETA reports that animals can sustain brain damage in as little as 15 minutes spent in a locked car that’s not running on a hot day. On a 78-degree day, the temperature inside a parked car can reach as high as 120 degrees, and on a 90-degree day, the interior temperature can reach as high as 160 degrees in less than 10 minutes.
HB 131 applies only to dogs, cats and other animals that can be considered household pets. Livestock and farm animals are excluded, but Wisch said they are protected under other laws around the transportation of commercial animals.
Wisch said the Animal Legal & Historical Center has received questions about the law’s implementation, including concerns from people who drive hybrids and are concerned that someone might not hear their car running before breaking in for the rescue. She’s also been surprised at how quickly word about the laws has spread in Florida, Wisconsin and Tennessee.
“I am continually surprised at how passionate people are about animals, word about these law just spread like wildfire,” Wisch said. “People are getting smart about how to inform overzealous people that they have taken measures to protect their animals or others who might be in the car."