Police worried about statute to protect those who rescue dogs from cars

Certain people who enter cars to remove animals will be protected from civil and criminal liability beginning Oct. 1, a concept three local police leaders said was well-intentioned but could pose problems in practice.

Per a new statute approved by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy in June, a person is protected if he or she believes the animal is facing serious bodily injury, uses no more force than necessary, reports the vehicle entry to law enforcement and ensures the well-being of the animal.

The provision is part of a larger piece of legislation, Public Act No. 18-164, that includes recommendations from the state Department of Motor Vehicles.

State Sen. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton, who co-chairs the Transportation Committee, said the idea was introduced late in this year’s legislative session — it didn’t need to be its own bill, she said, but also was so well-accepted it wouldn’t hold up the larger DMV bill.

Boucher said it’s similar to a 2017 statute that allows certain people to rescue children from locked cars without facing liability.

“We feel very strongly that our animals and pets should also have the same protection,” she said.

Ledyard police Chief John Rich said he understands why both statutes exist, although he believes a child left behind in a car is not directly comparable to an animal.

“You read stories nationwide about people forgetting a child in a car seat, and then you have a tragedy happen because the person forgot to go to day care that day and went right to the office,” Rich said. “In a situation like that, if someone were to come upon (the child), that’s a life safety emergency.”

Rich said his officers will document all such calls to see whether each person meets the criteria outlined in the statute. He said he’s concerned with four pieces of the legislation: whether a person had “reasonable belief” the animal was in danger, whether they believed the danger was “imminent,” whether they used no more force than “reasonably” necessary when breaking into another person’s car and whether they exhibited “gross, willful or wanton negligence.”

“The issue is with the language,” Rich said.

New London Capt. Brian Wright said many laypeople can’t tell whether a dog is in distress. They see a dog panting and assume it’s in trouble, Wright said, when it might just be cooling down or anxious for its owner’s return.

“The problems are going to come with the interpretation (of the statute) and the overreaction of concerned people for the well-being of dogs or other animals,” he said.

New London police had a legitimate call July 31 when they had to remove two small dogs from a 107-degree car that was parked at Ocean Beach Park for almost two hours. The owner, 38-year-old Nicholes Seguin of Palmer, Mass., was charged with cruelty to animals and having unvaccinated animals.

But Wright said many more cases are false alarms triggered by people who call 911 upon seeing an animal without continually observing the situation or trying to find the owner.

Overheated dogs typically have glazed eyes and deeply red gums and are drooling in addition to heavily panting, said Wright, who raised other questions: what if the dog bites the would-be rescuer, or jumps out of the car and gets run over by another vehicle?

“Who’s responsible now?” he asked. “Who’s liable now? All those things that could actually become an issue or happen weren’t thought out. The immediate picture was seen, but not the big picture.”

Groton Town police Chief Louis J. Fusaro Jr., who made many of the same points, urged people to continue calling 911.

“You’re always better off calling the authorities and letting us handle it rather than taking the situation into your own hands,” said Fusaro, who couldn’t recall any significant calls for animals in cars this summer. “I understand the rationale and this isn’t to be critical of the legislation, but (breaking into a car) shouldn’t be your first course of action.”

l.boyle@theday.com

Editor's Note: This version corrects the title of New London police Capt. Brian Wright.

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