The sight of Fido, tongue wagging happily, sticking his head out the window of a vehicle — or riding in the bed of a pickup truck — in the Virgin Islands appear to be a thing of the past.
The V.I. Police Department has a warning for pet owners: bringing a furry friend on car rides is only allowed if the animal is crated and placed in the back seat.
Although this rule is not clearly stated in the Virgin Islands Code, St. John residents have recently been informed of the enforcement effort the hard way – getting pulled over by VIPD officers in traffic stops.
A number of people have reported being pulled over recently for driving with their pets in the front seat — although just one person has reported being issued a citation for violating this law.
One man, who told St. John Tradewinds he has been pulled over three times in the past two months for allowing his dog to ride in the front seat unrestrained, reported he has not been ticketed despite asking to be cited for violation of the law.
“The third time I got pulled over, I was frustrated,” said the man, who asked to remain anonymous. “I said, ‘fine, if this is against the law, give me a ticket.’ Personally, I don’t believe there is such a law.”
“It seems like the police can’t figure out what the laws are, so they act as the judge,” the man added.
There is, in fact, a law against pets riding unrestrained in motor vehicles, according to VIPD spokesperson Sgt. Thomas Hannah.
“The seat belt law does come into effect,” he said. “If that animal is jumping around the front seat and the driver is trying to prevent the animal from being distracting, the driver could end up in a head on collision where someone dies. I’m glad the officers are warning everyone, because we’ve had a number of this type of accident in the Virgin Islands.”
Animals being transported by motor vehicle must be restrained in the back seat, according to Hannah, who compared driving with unrestrained pets to other driving distractions, such as applying makeup, reading the newspaper, or talking on a cell phone, which was banned last year in the V.I.
“It would be beneficial for that animal to be restrained in the back seat in some type of cage,” he said. “Please place the pet in a restraint in the back seat. Distraction can be caused by drinking a cup of coffee, eating food, talking on a cell phone, or unrestrained pets — you name it, all of those things come into play.”
The most serious offense while transporting pets is allowing dogs to ride in the truck bed of a vehicle, according to Hannah.
“Should that animal jump out, it’s an automobile accident in the making,” he said. “Place the animal in some type of restraint.”
Transporting an unrestrained pet in a motor vehicle is “ab-solutely” a ticketable offense, according to Hannah.
One VIPD officer has taken enforcement to the next level, by threatening one woman that he would put her dog to sleep, according to the woman who asked that her name be withheld.
“I had a big spare tire in the back seat, so my little dog was laying down in the front passenger seat,” said the woman. “When he saw the dog, he asked me what it was doing in the front seat, and he said, ‘I could take that dog right now and put it to sleep. It’s against the law for dogs to ride in the front seat.’”
The officer wrote the woman a ticket, and threatened her dog’s life once more, she said.
“He said, ‘If I see that dog in the front seat of this car again, I’m going to take her and put her to sleep,’” said the woman. “I said, ‘yes sir.’ I wasn’t messing around with him.”
VIPD spokesperson Shawna Richards would not address the department’s policy on punishment for dogs found riding in the front seat of vehicles.
“I’m not going to address any policies, but I’m sure this entire thing is just misconstrued,” said Richards.
One man who has been pulled over, but not ticketed, for this offense, questions whether this is true.
“I could not find anything in the V.I. Code, and neither could my attorney,” he said. “I don’t understand the law.”
The law is spelled out in Title 20, Section 466a of the V.I. Code, according to Richards.
Interpretaton of Law
Although this section of V.I. Code does not specify that pets must be restrained, it could be open to interpretation.
The law, which states “any passenger in the front seat of the vehicle” must be restrained by a safety belt, does not limit itself to passengers of the human race – but it also does not state animals are covered under the law.
“Certainly you can’t put a seat belt on a dog,” said Hannah. “You should be using a pet carrier.”
“People would be pulled over because they are in violation of a law requiring all objects in a car to be properly restrained,” said Richards. “When you have an animal in the car like that, it poses a hazard to the driver and to other drivers on the road. It could be a distraction.”