Can a person commit motor vehicle theft without moving the vehicle? That is what the Minnesota Supreme Court had to determine in the case of State v. Thonesavanh. Sometimes legal questions can quite literally depend on the meaning of one word, which was the case here. The word in question – “takes.”
The defendant in the case, Thonesavanh, locked himself in the victim's vehicle. The victim had started his vehicle to warm it up and then went back into his home. Thonesavah first knocked on the victim's door before locking himself in the car. The victim called the police, who were able to coax the defendant out of the vehicle and place him under arrest. Thonesavanh was later charged with theft of a motor vehicle. However, this charge was dismissed by the District Court because the court determined that “there was no evidence that Thonesavanh had either ‘take[n] or drive[n]' [the victim's] vehicle, one of which was necessary to convict Thonesavanh of motor vehicle theft.” In order to “take or drive” the vehicle, the court reasoned that the vehicle must actually move and as Thonesavanh never moved the car, his actions didn't amount to vehicle theft.
The Minnesota Court of Appeals stated that the “motor-vehicle theft statute was ambiguous.” However, the court reached the same conclusion in interpreting it, that in order for the defendant to be charged with theft of a motor vehicle, he must have moved the vehicle.
Thus, when the case reached the Supreme Court, the court was tasked with determining exactly what the meaning of “takes” in the motor vehicle statute meant. As the statute itself did not provide a definition of the word “takes,” the court turned to dictionary definitions. (As a note, the court did also look at the meaning of the word “drives” and concluded that this word did “contemplate movement.”) The court looked at a number of different dictionary definitions and found that the definition of “take” could mean both to move something and to not move something. The court concluded that the statute was ambiguous, at least as it applied in Thonesavanh's case.
Because the statute was ambiguous the court turned to the “canons of construction to discern its meaning.” The court determined that “[t]he application of [the] three canons leads us to conclude that the better interpretation of the motor-vehicle-theft statute is the one advanced by the State: all that is required to “take” a motor vehicle is to adversely possess it.” Thus, the court concluded that movement was not required under the motor-vehicle theft statute.
The court then reversed the decision of the court of appeals and remanded the case back down to the district court “for further proceedings consistent with [its] opinion.”
Theft of a motor vehicle is a serious offense that, if convicted, can result in time behind bars as well as fines and other penalties. If you have been charged with motor vehicle theft in Washington, please do not hesitate to contact the Law Offices of Steve Karimi today.