Colorado House Bill Grants Immunity for Emergency Rescue Break-Ins

A bill introduced this session in Colorado just changed the law regarding what a citizen can do if they see a child or pet locked in a car. House Bill 1179, “Immunity For Emergency Rescue From Locked Vehicle,” passed on April 14. The bill provides immunity from civil and criminal liability for a person who “forcibly enters a locked vehicle for the purpose of rendering assistance to an at-risk person or animal.” When the bill was originally introduced in the fall, skeptics questioned why granting immunity was necessary. The legislators who drafted the bill decided to write specific steps that need to be followed in order for a person to be granted immunity from criminal charges. Now, the bill has bipartisan support in both the House and Senate.

The steps in the bill go as follows: “To receive immunity, the person must: ensure the vehicle is not a law enforcement vehicle; have a reasonable belief that the person or animal is in imminent danger of death or suffering serious bodily injury; verify the vehicle is locked; make a reasonable effort to locate the owner or operator of the vehicle; contact a law enforcement or other first responder agency prior to forcibly entering the vehicle and not interfere with the actions of any such responding law enforcement agency; and use no more force than reasonably necessary to enter the locked vehicle.”

While this bill covers all “at-risk persons”—physically or mentally disabled persons, the elderly, or small children—it also covers dogs and cats. The decision to include pets in this bill was primarily because of the large number of incidents that occur during hot summers each year. People are more inclined to leave their pets in the car because the danger of doing so has not been advertised to the public.

Last year, the Colorado Springs Gazette published an article citing that “there were 555 reported incidents of dogs left in hot vehicles” in the Pikes Peak region within the past year. The Denver Post reported that in “Douglas, El Paso, and Pueblo Counties, animal control responded to over 720 calls” of pets left in hot cars. While this problem isn’t necessarily getting worse, it continues to be dangerous—for children and pets—as many people are unaware of the consequences of locked cars.

Aubyn Royall, Colorado state director for the Humane Society of the United States, wrote the legislation for this bill. Although Royall is an employee of the Humane Society, she works closely with members of Congress writing legislation specific to animal rights issues. In a phone interview, Royall explained why she decided this was an important issue that deserved legislation: “The reason why I thought Colorado would be good for this bill is because we have a tough time getting things passed with the current makeup of the Senate. Animal issues should be non-partisan, but unfortunately they are not… We wanted to sign a bill that everyone could be excited about.” She then explained how the idea was actually put into action: “Usually, when we are drafting legislation I have to go looking for sponsors for a bill. But Representative [Lori] Saine approached me.”

The fact that this bill not only had bipartisan support, but also had multiple sponsors in the House and the Senate, pointed to success. Representative Saine was the primary sponsor for this bill, along with sponsors Representative Joann Ginal, Senator Lois Court, and Senator Vicky Marble. Rarely are bills like this so successful and so supported by legislators. “This bill passed on the first try,” said Royall. “It passed in the same session we introduced it. That’s huge. A lot of times bills have to be introduced more than once.”

So what sparked the controversy? Royall credits the bill for starting the discussion on the dangers of hot cars, even in non-summer months. She testified to the threshold that animals can withstand in hot cars, explaining, “With animals we know that even on a 70-degree day, in a car with the windows rolled up, you can get to over 100 degrees in less than 20 minutes. The general rule of thumb is 10 to 15 degrees every 10 minutes in direct sunlight. There have been cases where a dog has died in a car when it’s 60 degrees.” But it’s not just animals that are prone to overheating; Infants and children are also at a higher-risk if left in a car.

According to the National Security Council, since 1998 the average deaths per year of children left in hot cars totaled 37. The official term for this is vehicular heat stroke. According to a recent study conducted by neuroscientist David Diamond, three times as many children have died this year [2016] than in past years. In his latest research article, Diamond attributes this to a failure between “habit memory” and “prospective memory.” Prospective memory is the planning of a future action, such as taking a child to daycare in the morning instead of the afternoon. Habit memory is a repetitive action performed automatically, such as driving to work. Diamond explains that, “a suppression of prospective memory caused by the dominance of habit memory… is almost a daily occurrence. Sadly, this causes [parents] to lose awareness of the presence of their child in the car.” Obviously, this isn’t good. But what’s worse is that a large percentage of the public population is unaware of the severity of leaving a child in a car.

The American Association for Pediatrics conducted a study proving that “modern ambient temperatures” could still cause heat stress in infants or children left in enclosed vehicles. In addition, the study evaluated the effect of having windows “cracked open.” The results of the AAP study were extensive: “The average mean increase was 3.2 degrees per five minute interval, with 80 percent of the temperature rise occurring during the first 30 minutes. The final temperature of the vehicle depended on the starting ambient temperature, but even at the coolest ambient temperature, internal temperatures reached 117 degrees. On average, there was a 40 degree increase in internal temperature for ambient temperatures spanning 72 degrees to 96 degrees.”

Additionally, “leaving the windows opened slightly does not significantly slow the heating process or decrease the maximum temperature.” Dr. James Hubbel, a pediatrician, testified to this data at the introduction of the bill on Feb. 7, explaining why simple heat can be so harmful: “Because [infants] are so small there is not a lot of surface area for them to cool off. They are like little furnaces.”

Arguably, the bill should have been introduced years ago when organizations began to notice trends in vehicular heat stroke deaths. “The passing of this bill into law says, ‘This is such a big deal and this is so common that we have to have legislation that under certain circumstances, you can break into a car if you need to’,” Royall said. Royall went on to clarify that the sponsors hope this new legislation will raise public awareness on the issue and discourage people from leaving pets or children in a locked car in the first place. “People just don’t fundamentally understand how quickly a car can heat up in a matter of minutes. These are not negligent people, they just don’t understand how dangerous it is.”

Bill sponsor Representative Joann Ginal said in an email, “This is kind of a new trend of a bill. People that were passionate about this issue were people that love their dogs.” While there was great bipartisan support of this bill, there was also some opposition from members of the House and the Senate.

Representative Mike Foote was one of two House members who opposed the bill after its reading in session. He explained, “We already allow for this kind of action under certain circumstances in our statutes,” he explained. “It is called the choice of evils doctrine. I thought the bill was unnecessarily duplicative.” The choice of evils doctrine under Colorado Revised Statute 18-1-702 states: “The use of physical force, or conduct which would otherwise constitute an offense is justifiable and not criminal when it is necessary as an emergency measure to avoid an imminent public or private injury.” While citizens would probably be protected by this doctrine, it is also confusing and doesn’t provide specific guidelines for when to use force and what constitutes an “emergency measure.”

Representative Yuelin Willett from House District 54 was the other member to vote in opposition of the bill. “One of the steps in the bill is to notify law enforcement,” Willett noted. “I am from Mesa County, which is a more remote area, where you are commonly out of cell service. That would make this step very hard to do.”

Representative Willett said, “I saw this bill as kind of a matter of protecting do-gooders vs. legalizing vigilantes.” Representative Willett’s assistant pointed out that both Representative Willett and Foote were lawyers as well as legislators, and believe that total immunity should not be granted anywhere in the law.

In addition to the two votes of opposition in the House, there were two votes of opposition in the Senate. One opponent, Senator Jerry Sonnenberg, could not be reached for comment. The other, Senator Randy Baumgardner, expressed his concerns over the phone: “You know, it’s really an invasion of privacy. Someone could go into a store, leave the window cracked, not be in there for more than three minutes, and someone could bust the window open.  There’s also the availability for stealing; someone could break into the car and use the animal as excuse to steal.”

The primary sponsor of this bill, Representative Lori Saine from House District 63, couldn’t be reached for comment due to a budget hearing. However, in an interview in January with Channel 9 News, she stressed the importance of the bill starting a public education campaign: “Now education is coming to the surface about how dangerous [this is] when we do have a rise in temperature.” Representative Saine believes that this bill could not only save lives, but protect the rescuers as well. “It’s fundamentally wrong to not protect Good Samaritans who protect others,” she said.

Mary Murphy

Mary Murphy

Mary has been on the Catalyst's layout and design team for over a year. She is a senior English major on the Creative Writing track with a minor in Journalism. She first got involved with the Catalyst when she began writing as a guest writer her freshman year at Colorado College. She is also a published author. When Mary isn't writing, she enjoys being outdoors: hiking, rock climbing, and skiing. Mary is also an avid nature photographer and occasionally takes photos for the Catalyst. She is originally from south Florida.

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