MN court: If a car doesn’t move, it isn’t theft

The Minnesota Court of Appeals today clarified that if someone jumps in your car while it’s warming up in your driveway, and even puts it in gear, it’s not theft if it doesn’t move.

The court ruled in the case of Somsalao Thonesavanh, who jumped in the car of a Worthington man as he left it warming up in December 2014. Thomesavanh had earlier banged on the man’s door, prompting the resident to call police.

When the police showed up, they noticed the rear-reverse lights were illuminated.

But Thonesavanh’s attorney said there wasn’t probable cause for an auto theft charge. A district court agreed and threw the charge out. Today, the Court of Appeals rejected the prosecutors’ appeal.

Under Minnesota law, car theft involves “a person who ‘takes or drives a motor vehicle without the consent of the owner or an authorized agent of the owner, knowing or having reason to know that the owner or an authorized agent of the owner did not give consent.'”

The decision to throw the charge out hinged on the definition of “takes,” Judge Edward Toussaint, Jr., wrote today on behalf of the three-judge panel, citing the most influential book of law — the dictionary.

The term “take” has many definitions, as demonstrated by the fact that the Compact Oxford English Dictionary dedicates 16 pages to defining it.The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language also contains many definitions of the term “take,” including “[t]o remove or cause to be absent” and “[t]o get into one’s hands, control, or possession.” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language 1774–75 (5th ed. 2011). The American Heritage definitions demonstrate the ambiguity of the term “takes” under Minn. Stat. § 609.52, subd. 2(a)(17), as movement seems to be required by the first definition, but not by the second. Because these definitions demonstrate that the term “takes” in the context of Minn. Stat. § 609.52, subd. 2(a)(17), is subject to more than one reasonable interpretation, we conclude that the statute is ambiguous.

And when a statute is ambiguous, Toussaint said, the ruling should favor the defendant.

In this case, since the car didn’t move, it wasn’t stolen.

“The term ‘takes‘ does not merely require that a person obtain control over the personal property, but requires that a person physically remove the personal property in order to be guilty of a theft of movable property crime,” he said.