How many cats is a person legally allowed to let roam the inside of his or her car while they travel the country?
The South Dakota Supreme Court weighed in on that very issue last week, setting the bar somewhere below 15.
The state's highest court ruled — in a case titled State of South Dakota v. Fifteen Impounded Cats — that a police officer acted correctly in August when he seized the aforementioned 15 felines from a vehicle belonging to Patricia Edwards.
Miss Edwards, who said she had been living out of her car for several days and had no money, told an officer responding to a late-night service call at a convenience store parking lot in Pierre that she drove with the cats from Texas to South Dakota and that she planned to travel on to Montana and then back to Texas.
The officer noticed that the car, alternately described as "filthy," "cluttered" and "crammed," contained no cages or carriers. While there was a litter box, it "needed to be cleaned out," according to court records.
A hearing to ratify the officers impoundment of the cats was held on Aug. 19, during which the court expressed "concern with the visibility and safety issues" related to Miss Edwards transportation of her cats and particular concern with her ability to drive while 15 small animals were roaming loose in her vehicle.
The facts of the case also established that the view out the back window was "obstructed by numerous cats climbing on the seat backs and rear dashboard." On that basis, the court found "exigent circumstances" sufficient to ratify the impoundment of the cats.
"Because of the cats in the back window, Edwards failed to see the patrol car behind her and nearly backed into it," Chief Justice David Gilbertson wrote in a 15-page decision. "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?"
The court also noted that pictures of the interior of Miss Edwards' vehicle showed it was "crammed full of boxes, coolers, blankets, clothes, two liter bottles full of water, books, cooking utensils, a large bag of cat food and a large and dirty litter box."
The cats were taken to a local kennel and, after a hearing that concluded Miss Edwards did not have the means to care for them, they were turned over to the local animal shelter for adoption.
In the majority ruling, Justice Gilbertson wrote that, "Given the open and obvious safety hazard presented by Edwards' traveling coterie of cats, the investigating officer here was clearly confronted with a situation demanding immediate attention to avoid serious injury and to protect the health, welfare and safety of citizens."
Miss Edwards argued that the cats should not have been seized because they were being treated well and that they were not in distress. She said they had been seen by a veterinarian a month earlier and were in good health — but she did not have records on hand to prove it.
"Although Edwards indicated that the cats were all spayed and neutered, she further stated that the cats had destroyed those treatment records," according to the majority opinion.
Two justices, however, dissented.
Justice Glen A. Severson argued that the question before the court was not whether Miss Edwards' cats lived in ideal conditions or whether they could have received better care elsewhere. He said the "exigent circumstances" required to seize the cats without a warrant or court order did not exist.
He said Miss Edwards had provided her cats with food, water, protection from the elements, adequate sanitation, and affection, adding that they had been spayed or neutered and had received their immunizations.
"Despite the state's avowed concerns regarding Miss Edwards' ability to operate her vehicle amid her 15 cats, the state did not cite her with a traffic violation," he wrote. "The claims of 'exigent circumstances' and inhumane treatment are a pretext. 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 Miss Edwards."
Justice Severson also said state laws dictating no more than three people ride in the front seat of a car lest they interfere with the driver's view or control did not apply to cats.
"Miss Edwards' cats should be returned to her care," he wrote.
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