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6/25/2010
South Dakota Supreme Court Upholds Impounding Of Cats
Driving with too many cats creates an imminent safety hazard according to the South Dakota Supreme Court.

Justices Gilbertson and Severson
A woman driving between Texas and Montana was stopped in South Dakota for the crime of driving with too many cats. In the case known as "South Dakota v. Fifteen Impounded Cats," that state's highest court ruled Wednesday that the feline seizure was the appropriate response. On August 13, 2009 at around 11:15pm, a Pierre policeman had stopped Patricia Edwards as she was backing out of a parking spot. Edwards, broke, was living out of the car with fifteen cats and all of her personal belongings.

The officer at the scene ordered the pets impounded because he was concerned at the conditions in the car which had a "strong pet odor" and a full litter box. Prosecutors later told Edwards that she should hire a lawyer and that she would be forced to pay all costs of holding her cats in the local pound. On August 24, 2009, prosecutors moved to put the cats up for adoption. The court denied Edwards' request to take the cats home on the grounds that she presented no plan to pay for the costs of their care.

Edwards appealed this ruling on the grounds that the city had no reason to seize her personal property without a warrant. State law allows seizure of pets in "exigent circumstances." Edwards argued that no such circumstances existed because her cats were healthy and well cared for. A majority on the court, led by Chief Justice David E. Gilbertson, disagreed.

"Here, the circuit court found exigent circumstances justifying the impoundment of Edwards's cats in the health and safety hazards created by Edwards's traveling on a public roadway and through a crowded parking lot with fifteen small animals wandering around loose in her jam-packed vehicle to distract her and interfere with her ability to see where she was going," Gilbertson wrote. "Beyond the unsanitary aspects of the situation, it presented a significant safety risk to the public."

The majority insisted that driving with a large number of cats in one's automobile presents an imminent public threat.

"Because of the cats in the back window, Edwards failed to see the patrol car behind her and nearly backed into it," Gilbertson wrote. "What if, instead of the officer's patrol car, a less visible child on a skateboard or bicycle had passed by at that same moment? If the safety of an endangered cat can constitute 'exigent circumstances' even more so must a direct threat to the safety of the public in the area."

Justices Glen A. Severson and Judith K. Meierhenry dissented, arguing that the majority misconstrued a law meant to prevent animal cruelty by turning "exigent circumstances" into a phrase that could apply to absolutely anything -- including driver safety.

"The state provides no authority for the notion that animals traveling in a vehicle must be confined to kennels," Severson wrote. "It strains credibility to conclude that the facts of this case constitute the type of emergency situation requiring an officer to act quickly to impound animals without a warrant or court order in order to protect the animals."

Severson pointed out that the cats were living in no worse condition than Edwards herself, and that under the state's care, the animals were confined to small cages at the local pound, able to get out only "for short periods." The police officer at the scene did not cite Edwards for any driving violation.

"The claims of 'exigent circumstances' and inhumane treatment are a pretext," Severson wrote. "If safe operation of the vehicle was the concern, the police should have addressed that issue and not exposed the taxpayers to the cost of caring for animals wrongfully seized from Ms. Edwards."

A copy of the decision is available in a 150k PDF file at the source link below.

Source: PDF File South Dakota v. Fifteen Impounded Cats (Supreme Court, State of South Dakota, 6/23/2010)



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