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Friday, June 25, 2010

Driver Distraction: More than Just Cell Phones

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has initiated a campaign to study and reduce the role of distracted driving in deadly and injurious car accidents. While the bulk of this campaign has been directed at cell phones, texting, and other technological distractions, it is important to remember that other distractions can also impair your driving. Like cats.

Wednesday the South Dakota State Supreme Court issued its ruling in State of South Dakota vs. Fifteen Impounded Cats. An officer was called to a convenience store about a car in the parking lot occupied by a woman and a large number of cats. The woman began backing out of her parking space and almost hit the patrol car, at which point the officer noticed that the view out of the back window of the woman's car was obstructed by numerous cats climbing on the seats and rear dashboard. The woman had driven from Texas to South Dakota and was on her way to Billings, Montana before driving back to Texas. With fifteen cats. The woman and her cats had been living out of the car for several days and the woman said she didn't have any money.

The car was further piled up with personal belongings on the passenger seat and in the back seat, limiting the area the cats could move about freely, and putting them at a level that they would interfere with her visibility. There were no kennels or carriers, and only one litter box. The car emanated a strong pet odor, and the woman noted that the litter box needed to be cleaned. She also said all the cats were spayed and neutered, but that the cats had, remarkably, destroyed all record of their treatments. The officer ordered the cats impounded and he and a member of the local humane society took them into custody.

At a hearing, the woman demanded that the cats be returned to her, but did not have a plan to pay for their care, to care for them herself, or to safely transport them. The woman filed an appeal, saying that the impounding of her cats represented a violation of her constitutional rights because the cats were seized without a warrant, she was not given due process, and that there was insufficient evidence to uphold the impoundment.

However, the court decided 3-2 that the "situation demand[ed] immediate attention with no time to obtain a warrant" (Quoting State v Hess 2004 SD 60), and noted that sometimes "immediate action is necessary to protect the health, welfare and safety of the citizens" (City of Pierre v. Blackwell 2001 SD 127). The court noted that she showed up for both hearings and was given the opportunity for a continuance to obtain counsel rather than continue representing herself. On the issue of evidence, the Court balked, saying only that there was not enough evidence to overturn the lower court's finding.

The dissenting justices did not affirm the decision because they did not believe the situation constituted exigent circumstances. Oddly, the dissent states that the phrase "exigent circumstances" refers only to situations where impounding is necessary to protect the well-being of an animal, saying that "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." The dissent also adds that "The State provides no authority for the notion that animals traveling in a vehicle must be confined to kennels." The dissent also notes that if the issue were safe operation of the vehicle, the woman should have been cited with a traffic offense, but she was not.

This odd and amusing case is unusual, but distracted driving is all too common, accounting for nearly 6000 car accident deaths in 2008. If you have been injured or lost a loved one in an accident with a distracted driver, The Cochran Firm can help. Please contact us today for a free initial consultation.


posted by Benjamin A. Irwin at 1:09 PM

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