MN Supreme Court settles when a person is a burglar, not a thief

Burglar Lionel Lopez, who stole a man’s cellphone and wallet from a motel room in Willmar, Minn., in November 2015, has struck out again in his claim that he’s not a burglar because he was in the motel legitimately and a motel room isn’t a separate building under the state’s burglary law.

The Minnesota Supreme Court, like a divided Court of Appeals before it, has now ruled that a motel guest who breaks into a motel room is a burglar.

Minnesota’s law says a person who commits burglary enters a building without consent.

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 says he was a guest, so he had consent to be in the motel. He might be a thief, but he’s not a burglar, he maintained. He claims that a hotel room is merely a connected structure located within the overall hotel building, rather than a separate building.

That’s the question that divided the Court of Appeals, but in its ruling this week, the Minnesota Supreme Court said it didn’t need to settle it because “a person enters a building without consent under the burglary statute when he or she enters a portion of a building where they do not have permission to be.”

Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Lorie Gildea cited a previous conviction the court upheld in which a man was convicted of burglary when he entered the locked pharmacy area of a store that was still open.

“Lopez undeniably had the hotel’s consent to be present in the hotel’s common areas and the room he rented for the night, but he did not have consent to enter other, non-public areas of the hotel,” she wrote.

Justice David Lillehaug agreed with the result but not the reasoning. He said the definition of “building” is different now in the state’s burglary law than it was in the 1984 pharmacy case. He wrote:

The statutory definition of “enters a building without consent” is perfectly clear when applied to a single-use building or a single-family dwelling.

If the person in lawful possession of a single-family home consents to another person entering the home, that person cannot subsequently be convicted of burglarizing the home. The non-consent element would be lacking.

But Lillehaug said when the Legislature changed the burglary law in 1983 to remove a phrase that defined a building as both a structure and a separately occupied portion of a building, it was trying to strengthen the statute by including more things that it protected — houseboats, for example — not weaken it.

“Considering these canons together, the better reading of the phrase ‘enters a building without consent’ is that the statute extends to entering portions of the building— in this case, a hotel room—without the consent of the occupant,” he said.

Justices Anne McKeig and Margaret Chutich joined Lillehaug’s interpretation.