What constitutes stealing in Minnesota? When it comes to shoplifting, you aren’t legally considered a shoplifter until you leave the store with the unpaid merchandise, so slipping something into your purse while you’re shopping isn’t considered stealing. However, the Minnesota Supreme Court recently ruled that the same laws don’t apply to motor vehicles.
Yesterday, the Minnesota Supreme Court reversed the decision of two lower courts which had previously ruled that a person needs to physically move a car in order for it to be considered car theft. The state’s top court ruled that car theft still occurs even if the perpetrator never actually takes the car anywhere.
Odd Car Theft Case
Here’s a breakdown of the case in question. Back in December of 2014, a Worthington man left his car idling in his driveway in order to let it warm up on a cold winter morning. While it was idling, the man witnessed Somsalao Thonesavanh jump in his vehicle. The man called the cops and they arrived to find Thonesavanh still sitting in the vehicle, right where the owner had left it.
Thonesavanh was arrested and charged with car theft, but his defense team argued that he didn’t actually commit theft since the state statute says car theft is defined as “taking or driving a motor vehicle without the consent of the owner. They argued that since he didn’t drive it anywhere, he hadn’t actually committed theft. The lower court agreed, as did the Minnesota Court of Appeals.
However, the case ultimately ended up before the Minnesota Supreme Court, who had a different opinion on the matter. Justice David Stras, who penned the majority decision, said that none of the more than 80 definitions of the word “take” settles the dispute in question, but he wrote that the statutes for robbery and larceny do not require anything to be transported or driven away. Here’s what he wrote.
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.
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 agreed with Justice Stras, interpreting that if the car theft statute intended the word “take” to require movement, it wouldn’t have also needed to include the word “drives” in the same definition.
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.
It’s an interesting case, and one that a defense attorney would love to challenge. It’s not ideal that Justice Stras has sided against the rule of lenity, as this interpretation could be applied to other cases, which I believe will be the most important aspect of this entire case. Hopefully it’s application and interpretation don’t negatively impact cases down the road.