South Dakota v. Fifteen Impounded Cats

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In this case—now also appearing on the Comical Case Names page—the Supreme Court of South Dakota grappled with legal issues arising from an officer's decision to impound fifteen cats he found roaming around a woman's car. South Dakota v. Fifteen Impounded Cats, 785 N.W.2d 272 (S.D. 2010). In a split decision, the justices rejected the woman's arguments that the evidence was insufficient to support the cat seizure and that said seizure violated her constitutional rights.

The cats were not actually parties to the case. As you may know, this kind of case name derives from the practice of naming the item or animal as the "defendant" in certain cases that involve the seizure or ownership of property. See, e.g.Fortner v. ATF Agents Dog 1, Cat 2, and Horse 3, 2011 WL 11489 (D. Colo. Jan. 4, 2011); United States v. 2,507 Live Canary Winged Parakeets, 689 F. Supp. 1106 (S.D. Fla. 1988); United States v. Article Consisting of 50,000 Cardboard Boxes More or Less, Each Containing One Pair of Clacker Balls, 413 F. Supp. 1281 (D. Wisc. 1976). This is an odd but comical fiction that I will continue to milk as long as they keep doing it. See also, e.g.Nebraska v. One 1970 2-Door Sedan Rambler (Gremlin), 215 N.W.2d 849 (Neb. 1974).

In the summer of 2009, a police officer in Pierre, South Dakota, responded to a call about a parked car occupied by one woman and a significant but then-unknown number of cats. When he arrived, the woman started to back her car up, nearly backing into the patrol car. "At that point, the officer observed that the view out of the back window of the other car was obstructed by numerous cats climbing on the seat backs and rear dashboard inside the vehicle."

The woman said she had been living in her car "for several days" and that there were fifteen cats in there with her. Because the car was also "crammed full of personal belongings," the cats were roaming about the car at a height that, according to the officer, interfered with the driver's visibility. The fifteen (15) cats had apparently been provided with one (1) litter box and the officer noted a "strong pet odor emanating from the vehicle."

The officer "impounded the cats." That's all the opinion says about that, unfortunately. Did he call the kennel to come pick them up, or could one have seen, at some point, a police officer in Pierre, South Dakota, driving around with fifteen cats crawling all over him? At any rate, after a hearing, a court found that "exigent circumstances" justified the seizure and ordered the cats transferred to the humane society.

Their driver appealed.

That appeal was heard by the highest court of the state, which is not quite as odd as it seems because a state with a small population (South Dakota's is about 840,000) doesn't need multiple tiers of appellate courts. As in South Dakota, they tend to have just local circuit courts with appeals going directly to the state supreme court. So that's why the supreme court was hearing a cat-seizure case.

The woman's main argument—to be honest, her only decent argument—was that her due process rights were violated because state law requires a warrant before seizing an animal unless the animal is suffering or there are "other exigent circumstances." Here, setting aside the "unsanitary aspects of the situation," the majority found it posed a risk to others because the fifteen cats were blocking the car's windows, and that was enough to justify the seizure. (Two of these three justices would also have held it justified because of the potential risk to the cats themselves.)

But the two dissenting justices weren't buying it. They argued that (1) if the seizure was based on concern for the animals, there was no evidence they were "suffering" to the extent contemplated by the law; and (2) if it was based on concern for the public, there was really no "emergency" situation that justified grabbing the cats without a warrant. This second argument seems wrong, though. For one thing, this happened at night. Should the officer have impounded the car and held the whole kaboodle overnight until he could ask for a warrant in the morning? That doesn't make any sense. In any event, by a 3-2 vote, the court affirmed and South Dakota's cat population officially rose by 15.

The South Dakota Supreme Court decided 105 cases in 2010. This was one of them.