Burglary conviction rests on this question: Is a motel room a building?

Every now and again the Minnesota Court of Appeals delivers a head-scratcher of a case; today is one such day.

Lionel Lopez broke into a Willmar motel room in November 2015 while its occupant — a co-worker — was taking a shower. Lopez swiped a cellphone and a wallet.

Is that burglary?

Here’s the Minnesota law that defines it:

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 acknowledged that he committed theft, but not burglary. Lopez’ novel defense is that he had permission to enter the motel — it’s a motel, after all — and that the room he broke into is not itself a “building.”

You can blame — or credit, depending on your view — the Legislature, which repealed a previous provision in 1982 that defined a building as “portions of such structure as are separately occupied.”

Long-time readers of NewsCut will recognize that these are the sorts of decisions we enjoy most, because it becomes a battle of the dictionaries, as Court of Appeals Judge John Rodenberg made clear in today’s decision, which declared that, yes, a motel room is a building.

We look first to the language of the statutory definition to determine if a motel room is “a structure suitable for affording shelter for human beings.” The word “structure” is not separately defined by the burglary statute. In lay dictionaries, “structure” is broadly defined: a structure is “[s]omething constructed or built,” Webster’s New International Dictionary 2501 (2d ed. 1947); “[t]hat which is constructed; a combination of related parts, as a machine, a building, or a bridge,” Funk & Wagnalls New Standard Dictionary 2401 (1945); or “[s]omething made up of a number of parts that are held or put together in a particular way,” The American Heritage Dictionary 1718 (4th ed. 2000). Black’s Law Dictionary similarly defines structure as “[a]ny construction, production, or piece of work artificially built up or composed of parts purposefully joined together.” Black’s Law Dictionary, 1650 (10th ed. 2014). The plain meaning of the word “structure” includes anything intentionally constructed from component parts.

The statutory definition of “building,” however, is narrower: only a structure “suitable for affording shelter for human beings” qualifies as a “building” under the burglary statute. Minn. Stat. § 609.581, subd. 2. A motel room is intentionally constructed from the component parts of walls, a ceiling, and a door, for the express purpose of affording shelter for guests. It is precisely because a motel room is so constructed that a person rents such a room. A motel room is a building within the meaning of Minn. Stat. § 609.582.

In calling the Legislature’s language “inartful,” Judge Rodenberg said it is not “ambiguous” and that Lopez’ five-year prison sentence for burglary stands.

But the Court of Appeals was divided on the conclusion. Judge Lawrence Stauber dissented, saying most people would not walk into a motel room and say they’ve entered a building.

He says the Legislature removed the previous definition in recognition of that fact. The state’s arson law, for example, says “If a building consists of two or more units separately secured or occupied, each unit shall be deemed a separate building.”

So if the Legislature defines a building one way for the arson statute, it must have meant for motel rooms not to be considered “buildings” in the burglary statute.

  • jon

    First thoughts:
    Looking at the statues for less than $500 in theft, looks like a 90 day stay in prison, and a fine of $1,000 would be the most for a first time offender…

    Burglary (in this instance) will get you 5 years and a $10,000 fine. UNLESS, a hotel room is a building that is a type of dwelling, then you can double both of those numbers.

    relevant statutes…

    Burglary doesn’t require any actual theft, only entering a building without consent and intent for commit a crime… seems like the sentencing is a bit askew there to me.
    entering my house without consent, and a intent to take something, or commit a crime can net you 10 years, actually taking something from me (not in my dwelling) gets you 90 days..

    Second thoughts:

    if a building can be a dwelling, and most definitions of a dwelling that I can find include apartments (or a “flat”, thanks oxford english…) which are only a unit in a building, then I’m left to presume that a portion of a structure can be a “building” for the purposes of this statute.

    Last thought:

    Any idea why the legislature did what it did in 1982?

    • // Any idea why the legislature did what it did in 1982?

      Nope, which brings up another thing. Courts spend so much time trying to figure out legislative intent, that it would be a great idea if the legislature not only documented what it did, but why it did it. The House and Senate journals do not do that.

      • jon

        I read something a while back about a case with Georgia and annotated laws… I believe they cited things like committee records, and transcriptions of debate on various parts of the bill.
        Here we go:

        copyright status case what what I had read about.

      • jon

        And to be fair to the judiciary, the legislative branch often doesn’t say Why they do things.
        Some times they intentionally avoid it… like with Voter ID.

      • Laurie K.

        Actually, I believe the Permanent Rules of the House require proceedings on the floor be recorded. The problem is that under the same rule, the recording is not admissible as to the issue of legislative intent:

        2.15 RECORDED FLOOR PROCEEDINGS. Proceedings on the floor of the House must be recorded on an appropriate audio recording medium under the direction of the Chief Clerk. The Chief Clerk must transmit a copy of the recordings to the Director of the Legislative Reference Library. The Legislative Reference Library must keep the recordings available for public use under its rules during the legislative biennium when the recordings were created and for eight years thereafter. The Library may then preserve or dispose of the recordings as the Library sees fit.

        A person may obtain a copy of a recording while it is kept in the Library by paying a fee determined by the House Controller to cover the cost of preparing the copy.

        Discussion preserved under this Rule is not intended to be admissible in a court or administrative proceeding on an issue of legislative intent.

        • And it’s not transcribed .

          • Laurie K.

            Correct, you have to do all the legwork in obtaining the copy and then listening and/or transcribing it.

          • My plan upon my election is to offer a bill requiring that at the very least, a lawmakers initial introduction of a bill for third reading on the floor be transcribed into the daily journal.

          • Laurie K.

            Also when you become an elected official you should take out the language from the Rule that says you cannot use the record at court for purposes of showing the legislative intent – why else would you bother to create a record?

        • RBHolb

          The floor proceedings often shed little light on what was intended. The real work is done in committee.

          • A bill still needs to be introduced on the floor and the author still needs to introduce it. That introduction and subsequent floor debate, if any, is hardly little light.

            Plus a committee doesn’t reveal legislative intent. Only the Legislature as a whole can.

          • RBHolb

            My experience has been that the introduction of a bill happens without any remarks from the sponsor. The final floor votes are usually just ratifying what has already happened in the committee (largely on party lines). If anything is said on the floor before a final vote, it’s to introduce amendments. There is very little “speechifying (given the level of eloquence in the Legislature, this may not be a bad thing).”

          • No, it doesn’t work that way. A bill gets three readings. the first reading is the one you’re talking about, it gets sent to committees and works it way there. Maybe it’ll pass as a bill on its own, maybe it’ll get rolled into an omnibus bill, but eventually it makes it back for a second reading…when nothing happens. And then it makes its way to the floor via a third reading which is definitely NOT a rubber stamp. That’s when floor debate begins and that usually gets a pretty good airing out.

            The purpose of the floor debate is not to introduce amendments. The purpose is to pass or defeat the bill depending on the INTENT of the legislators as a whole.

          • RBHolb

            Bob, I’ve done a lot of legislative research in Minnesota (as a pro). There are a couple of big bills in each session that get floor debate and real discussion, but the great mass of legislation that gets churned out is mostly settled in committee.

          • And I’ve covered the legislature and know how it works. I’m not arguing that committees aren’t the majority of the legislative process. I’m saying when a bill comes to a floor for a third reading, the sponsor still needs to get up and give a summary. That alone would provide substantially more information if annotated in the daily journal. No bill becomes law without that summary.

            One of the reasons committee action doesn’t give you significant insight into legislative intent is because so many bills are held over for possible inclusion in an omnibus bill, and then it got into the dark world of legislative leadeship, all behind closed doors. Until it comes out to the full House, we don’t have any clue what the thinking of the Legislature is.

            Is that worthless? You tell me. A pretty big societal question today got settled by a Funk and Wagnall’s dictionary and a guy is going to prison for five years.

  • wjc

    It seems pretty simple to me that a motel room is a “building” for the purpose of the burglary charge. If someone breaks into my living room, is the living room a building? Sure. A motel room is part of a larger structure that is certainly a building, just like my living room is part of a larger structure that is a building.

    I think Judge Stauber is just trying too hard to find a problem that doesn’t exist..

    • They would argue that your home itself is the building and it becomes a burglary not because your living room is a building, but that your home itself is the building.

      • wjc

        The motel is also a building.

        • Laurie K.

          The fact that the motel is a building was never at issue. The holding is that the room inside the motel is a building. So a building within a building…

          • wjc

            So why wouldn’t someone be able to argue that if they entered my living room they didn’t actually enter a building just a room? How about a studio apartment? It is configured much like a motel room.

            It just seems absurd to me that you could argue that entering a motel room is not also entering a building for the the purpose of a burglary charge.

          • Laurie K.

            Because, as someone else already pointed out, under your analogy it would be a separate count of burglary for every room entered in your home.

          • They wouldn’t be able to make the argument because the part of the statute about entering the building without consent trips them up so the question of whether your kitchen or living room (at least in regards to a house) is irrelevant.

            But your question is one I had too. If you lived next door in an apartment building, you’re in the building by consent, so what if you break into the apartment next door?

          • Laurie K.

            Per this published opinion, the plain (but inartful) language of the burglary statute indicates that you would be guilty of burglary.

          • wjc

            And however inartful, it is rightfully so.

    • jon

      I agree with your outcome, but disagree with your process.

      If some one enters your living room* but they had previously been in your kitchen, is that a new crime? Or was the crime entering the kitchen* from the outside.

      Then you have the difference between second and third degree burglary… which one of those “buildings” is a “dwelling”?

      *without consent and with intent to commit a crime

      • wjc

        They entered the building once. The number of rooms that are part of the specific area that they entered should be irrelevant.

      • wjc

        I suppose if the person entered my kitchen, went back outside and then separately entered my living room, they could be charged with 2 counts of burglary.

  • king harvest

    “Judge Lawrence Stauber dissented, saying most people would not walk into a motel room and say they’ve entered a building.”
    Has the judge never seen a motel? The rooms open to the parking lot. It’s a building with many doors, fer crying out loud!

  • Mike Worcester

    Call me simplistic (thus the reason I will never be able to be either an elected official or an esteemed jurist) — but a motel is a building, and a motel room is part of said building. When you enter a motel room, are you not entering a part of said building? Is only the office covered by the law?

    I’ll give the defence attorney props for trying to be novel, but still…..

  • Zachary

    International Building Code classifies “Motel” as a type R-1 building, which also includes Boarding Houses and Hotels. I wonder how this would have been ruled if it was a “Hotel” type transient housing where the crime was committed.

  • lindblomeagles

    Have to wonder what the judge was thinking here. Each motel unit has its own private entrance, a literal door. You have to get through, past, or beyond the door in order to take other people’s things. That’s why this action is called B U R G L A R Y.