The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has targeted distracted driving as its next major initiative to reduce deadly and injurious car accidents. Mostly, they are focusing on cell phones, texting, and other technological distractions, but they are neglecting another, potentially deadly distraction: cats.

Wednesday the Supreme Court of South Dakota issued its ruling in State of South Dakota vs. Fifteen Impounded Cats. The case began when an officer was called to a Pierre, South Dakota convenience store in response to a complaint about a car in the parking lot occupied by a woman and a large number of cats. Perhaps trying to flee the scene, the woman began backing out of her parking space and nearly struck the patrol car. This is the point when the officer noticed that the woman’s view out of the car’s back window was obstructed by numerous cats climbing all over the seats and rear dashboard. When the officer went up to the car, he noticed that it was further piled up with personal belongings: books, coolers, two-liter bottles of water. A powerful stench emanated from the car. The driver admitted that the one litter box (for fifteen cats!) did need to be cleaned. She further stated that she had been living out of the car for several days as she drove from Texas to South Dakota. Soon she would drive to Billings, Montana and thence back to Texas. The woman said her cats had been spayed and neutered, but the cats had destroyed all records. The officer ordered the cats impounded and with the aid of a member of the local humane society took them into custody.

The woman, representing herself, not only demanded the return of the cats, but claimed that her constitutional rights had been violated. Her cats had been taken without a warrant, she had been denied due process, and there was not enough evidence to justify the impoundment.

The woman’s appeal split the court, which nonetheless decided 3-2 that the officer had acted in a reasonable fashion because in the situation “immediate action [was] necessary to protect the health, welfare and safety of the citizens” (City of Pierre v. Blackwell 2001 SD 127), thus obviating the need for a warrant. As to due process, the court noted that she appeared at both hearings and the court offered a continuance so she could obtain counsel rather than continue representing herself. On the issue of evidence, the Court shrugged, saying there seemed to be adequate evidence to justify the impoundment. A specially concurring justice noted that only the cats’ safety was at issue, but it was reasonable to act immediately because the animal’s immediate safety was in jeopardy.

The dissenting justices did not affirm the decision because they believe that the statutory phrase “exigent circumstances” used to justify impoundment without a warrant refers only to situations where impounding is necessary to protect the well-being of an animal. And, they said, this was not such a situation. Fifteen loose cats in a car are obviously safe. After all, they had made it from Texas, why shouldn’t they make it back? The dissent also notes that there is no ordinance stating animals cannot run loose in vehicles and say that if the issue were related to safe operation of the vehicle, why wasn’t the woman cited with a traffic offense?

One question remains unanswered: why are the cats the defendants?

This case may be odd and amusing case, but distracted driving is all too common. In 2008, distracted driving accounted for nearly 6000 car accident deaths. If you have been injured or lost a loved one in an distracted driving accident the lawyers of Robert W. Kerpsack CO., LPA can help. Please contact us today for a free initial consultation.