MN Supreme Court: Car doesn’t have to move to be stolen

Can you steal a car if it never moves?

Yes, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled today, reversing two lower courts which had said Somsalao Thonesavanh of Nobles County, Minn., couldn’t be convicted of car theft because he didn’t take the car anywhere.

Thonesavanh had jumped into a car that was in the driveway of a Worthington, Minn., man who left it running on a winter morning in December 2014. The owner called the police, who found Thonesavanh still sitting in the vehicle, parked just where the owner left it.

Thonesavanh was charged with auto theft, but the law says a car thief “takes or drives a motor vehicle without the consent of the owner.” Because he didn’t take or drive it anywhere, the charges against him were dismissed.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal (see my previous NewsCut post on this case).

At issue is the meaning of the word “take,” as well as a rule that says a defendant must get a break when the law isn’t clear.

The American Heritage Dictionary defines take in over 80 ways, Justice David Stras wrote for the majority in today’s opinion, and none of them settles the question.

But Stras said statutes for robbery and larceny do not require anything to be transported or driven away.

If the crimes of simple robbery and theft are simply different degrees of the same crime, it would make little sense for us to ascribe one meaning to the word ‘takes’ in the simple-robbery statute—adverse possession of property belonging to another—but an entirely different meaning to the same word in the motor-vehicle-theft statute—movement of the property.

There’s no question the law is ambiguous, but Stras rejected the application of a legal canon — called “the rule of lenity” — that requires ambiguous laws to be decided in favor of the defendant.

Three canons, one intrinsic and two extrinsic, point toward a construction of the word “takes” that requires only adverse possession, not movement, yet application of the rule of lenity would require us to adopt the other construction, the one requiring movement, which is the far less reasonable alternative. As this case demonstrates, if we lived in a world in which the rule of lenity were a first resort, there would be no other canons.

Justice G. Barry Anderson said if the law intended “takes” to require movement, it wouldn’t have needed to include “drives” in the the wording of the law.

Here, interpreting “takes” to require movement would not make “drives” redundant because motor vehicles can be moved without being driven, such as by towing or pushing them. Nevertheless, because motor vehicles are almost always moved by driving them, interpreting “takes” to require movement would create substantial overlap with “drives.” Therefore, interpreting “takes” to not require movement is the more natural reading of the statute.

But Anderson was concerned about Stras’ application — or lack thereof — of the rule of lenity, saying he adopted the least defendant-friendly version.

“Even if defendants do not read the statute before they act, the fact remains that if they wanted to do so, they could learn what the law prohibits,” he wrote in today’s opinion. “Furthermore, a robust rule of lenity requires legislators to draft statues more clearly.”

“By construing ambiguity in favor of the criminal defendant, we ensure that the courts do not accidentally create crimes that the Legislature never intended,” he said. “Applying the rule of lenity as the court does guts it of its power and loses all of these benefits.”

Maybe that’s not a big deal in this case — few people hop in someone else’s car and not know what they’re doing is probably illegal — but Stras’ non-application of the rule now can be cited by the Supreme Court in any other case that challenges plenty of Minnesota laws whose wording in ambiguous.

Related: Franken opposes Justice Stras bid for fed bench (MPR News)