Burglary conviction rests on this question: Is a motel room a building?

Every now and again the Minnesota Court of Appeals delivers a head-scratcher of a case; today is one such day.

Lionel Lopez broke into a Willmar motel room in November 2015 while its occupant — a co-worker — was taking a shower. Lopez swiped a cellphone and a wallet.

Is that burglary?

Here’s the Minnesota law that defines it:

Whoever enters a building without consent . . . and commits a crime while in the building, . . . commits burglary in the first degree . . . if . . . the building is a dwelling and another person, not an accomplice, is present in it when the burglar enters . . . .

Lopez acknowledged that he committed theft, but not burglary. Lopez’ novel defense is that he had permission to enter the motel — it’s a motel, after all — and that the room he broke into is not itself a “building.”

You can blame — or credit, depending on your view — the Legislature, which repealed a previous provision in 1982 that defined a building as “portions of such structure as are separately occupied.”

Long-time readers of NewsCut will recognize that these are the sorts of decisions we enjoy most, because it becomes a battle of the dictionaries, as Court of Appeals Judge John Rodenberg made clear in today’s decision, which declared that, yes, a motel room is a building.

We look first to the language of the statutory definition to determine if a motel room is “a structure suitable for affording shelter for human beings.” The word “structure” is not separately defined by the burglary statute. In lay dictionaries, “structure” is broadly defined: a structure is “[s]omething constructed or built,” Webster’s New International Dictionary 2501 (2d ed. 1947); “[t]hat which is constructed; a combination of related parts, as a machine, a building, or a bridge,” Funk & Wagnalls New Standard Dictionary 2401 (1945); or “[s]omething made up of a number of parts that are held or put together in a particular way,” The American Heritage Dictionary 1718 (4th ed. 2000). Black’s Law Dictionary similarly defines structure as “[a]ny construction, production, or piece of work artificially built up or composed of parts purposefully joined together.” Black’s Law Dictionary, 1650 (10th ed. 2014). The plain meaning of the word “structure” includes anything intentionally constructed from component parts.

The statutory definition of “building,” however, is narrower: only a structure “suitable for affording shelter for human beings” qualifies as a “building” under the burglary statute. Minn. Stat. § 609.581, subd. 2. A motel room is intentionally constructed from the component parts of walls, a ceiling, and a door, for the express purpose of affording shelter for guests. It is precisely because a motel room is so constructed that a person rents such a room. A motel room is a building within the meaning of Minn. Stat. § 609.582.

In calling the Legislature’s language “inartful,” Judge Rodenberg said it is not “ambiguous” and that Lopez’ five-year prison sentence for burglary stands.

But the Court of Appeals was divided on the conclusion. Judge Lawrence Stauber dissented, saying most people would not walk into a motel room and say they’ve entered a building.

He says the Legislature removed the previous definition in recognition of that fact. The state’s arson law, for example, says “If a building consists of two or more units separately secured or occupied, each unit shall be deemed a separate building.”

So if the Legislature defines a building one way for the arson statute, it must have meant for motel rooms not to be considered “buildings” in the burglary statute.