MN Supreme Court settles St. Paul collector car debate

John Krenick of St. Paul has lost again, and so, too, has everyone trying to store old cars on their own property in violation of Minnesota law.

Krenick, you may recall from this NewsCut post more than a year ago, challenged a St. Paul ordinance requiring collector cars to be “screened” from the neighbors by covering them with tarps at his Cleveland Avenue home. When that didn’t pass inspection, he put up a half-hearted fence.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals upheld the statute, declaring it’s a public safety issue, not an aesthetic one.

Today, the Minnesota Supreme Court dealt another setback to Krenick’s argument that partial screening of collector cars satisfies the law. It said his position is without merit (see opinion).

“Krenik proposes what is, in essence, a partial-screening interpretation because he argues that the phrase ‘screened from ordinary public view’ requires only the concealment of a vehicle’s condition so that individuals passing by cannot tell whether it is a ‘junk car,'” Justice David Stras acknowledged in his opinion today.

But Stras rejected the claim after consulting the most important book in law: the dictionary.

The word “screen” means to “conceal from view or knowledge” or to “hide.” Webster’s Third New International Dictionary 2040 (2002); see The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language 1575 (5th ed. 2011) (defining “screen” as a verb to mean “[t]o conceal from view with a screen or something that acts like a screen,” and defining “screen” as a noun to mean something “that serves to protect, conceal, or divide”).

“Conceal,” in turn, is defined as “[t]o keep from being observed or discovered,” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language 380 (5th ed. 2011), and to “place out of sight,” “withdraw from being observed,” or “shield from vision or notice,” Webster’s Third New International Dictionary 469 (2002).

These definitions suggest that the collector-vehicle-storage statute requires complete concealment of the collector vehicles and their outdoor storage areas from ordinary public view.

Krenik argued that the St. Paul ordinance effectively prevents anyone from parking collector cars outside because driveways are too small to allow proper screening as Stras determines it.

“The unavailability of outdoor storage areas on some residential properties does not undermine our interpretation of the collector-vehicle-storage statute,” Stras countered. “After all, the statute applies statewide, in both rural and urban areas, and nothing indicates that the statute creates a right allowing all collector-vehicle owners to store their collector vehicles outside, regardless of space or other limitations on residential property.”

Stras also said the law only requires Krenik to screen collector cars from ordinary public view, not from every conceivable angle.

  • Mike Worcester

    I’m no legal expert but I do have to say that in the past couple of years, with this mostly current court makeup, I’ve seen them cite the dictionary in decisions more than previous courts. At least to me.

    • It seems to me there must be a better way — or more accurately: an additional way — to gauge legislative intent than just the literal translation of a bill that becomes law, particularly in an age where so much of the Legislature’s activities are preserved digitally.

      But it also seems to me that the Legislature is a bit sloppy in constructing its legislation.

      • Mike Worcester

        One would think so but has that not been a difficulty encountered by the courts for much of our nation’s history? Even the esteemed members of the U.S. Supreme Court have widely divergent views on the “intent” of the framers themselves.

      • Laurie K.

        Even with digital preservation of the Legislature’s activities, per the Permanent Rules of Senate [50.9], the Senate intends that testimony and discussion preserved is not admissible in any court proceeding on an issue of legislative intent. Which seems so ridiculous to me – they would prefer to keep their activities out of the court record and just let the justices guess at what they intended – or have the justices pull out Webster’s Dictionary to decide intent.

        • Mike Worcester

          Has that rule even been challenged? Can it be? Like you said, it seems counter-productive to try and divine intent when the most direct record of intent is kept from the eyes/ears of those whose job it is to interpret said intent.

          • Laurie K.

            I don’t know if it’s every been challenged in the past or not, but there is another permanent rule that addresses any proposed amendments – Permanent Rule of Senate No. 58 – “Every proposition to amend a rule of the Senate must be referred to the Committee on Rules and Administration. The proposition may not be acted upon until the report of the committee is received by the Senate”. No word on who can make a proposition to amend a rule…

      • Alberto Sappwood

        Why would they need to resort to anything else? The legislature makes its intent known through the text of the statute. When faced with unambiguous language (which is nearly always), parsing the words the legislature chose is all the court is permitted to do.

        • Unambiguous or ambiguous?

          Unamibiguous language in this case would be “completely screened,” I would think.

          But take this statute:

          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 . .

          Is a motel a building?

          Now consider this statute:

          “If a building consists of two or more units separately secured or occupied, each unit shall be deemed a separate building.”

          Is a motel room a building in that case?

          • Alberto Sappwood

            Unambiguous or ambiguous?

            Unambiguous.

            Unamibiguous language in this case would be “completely screened,” I would think.

            Yes. This case didn’t involve ambiguous language, which the court notes.

            Ambiguity refers to language that is susceptible to more than one meaning. It is not to be confused with vagueness, which is concerned with indefinite language that may or may not include borderline cases.

            But take this statute:

            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 . .

            This language is also unambiguous. It may be vague.

            Is a motel a building?

            What does the dictionary say?

          • // What does the dictionary say?

            Shouldn’t the legislative intent on the question be clear by the text of the bill?

            It’s quite possible than in legislative hearings, the question was answered. Why not be able to consult that information ?

          • Alberto Sappwood

            Is it not? Must the legislature provide a definition for every word it uses, or can they rely on common usage (i.e., the dictionary)?

          • As a last resort, sure. Do you think it’s possible, though, that what a majority thinks a dictionary says isn’t what the legislature intended?

            If the answer to that is YES, why NOT allowed appellate courts to use that information?

          • Alberto Sappwood

            As a last resort, sure.

            As a first resort. Statutory interpretation begins with the words the legislature chose.

            Do you think it’s possible, though, that what a majority thinks a dictionary says isn’t what the legislature intended?

            Sure. But the court cannot substitute the language of the statute with its own. The remedy is for the legislature to amend the statute.

            If the answer to that is YES, why NOT allowed appellate courts to use that information?

            Because of separation of powers. Legislatures draft legislation, not courts.

          • // Because of separation of powers. Legislatures draft legislation, not courts.

            They wouldn’t be drafting legislation. They would be merely using all available information to establish the legislature’s intent. In other words, they’d have more tools to get it right. Getting it right doesn’t violate the separation of powers.

          • Alberto Sappwood

            And the legislature’s intent is determined from the text. It’s not the court’s role to rewrite unambiguous statutes, even if it suspects the legislature meant something else. See Minn. Stat. § 645.16 (“When the words of a law in their application to an existing situation are clear and free from all ambiguity, the letter of the law shall not be disregarded under the pretext of pursuing the spirit.”)

            It’s a separation of powers issue for the court to ignore the law the legislature passed and replace it with its own.

          • They wouldn’t be rewriting it. They’d be interpreting it correctly. That’s what they’re doing now. As you know, the appellate courts are constantly asking “what did the legislature mean?” I don’t see the constitutional problem with using every possible tool at the judiciary’s disposal in 2017 to answer the question as accurately as possible.

            The court in this case ruled that the legislature meant that cars should be completely covered, even though the legislature didn’t specifically say so. What if there were minutes of a hearing or a floor session at which the bill was passed, however, at which the bill author had said that when she/he wrote the law, she meant a tarp that mostly but not completely screens a car is still screening it for the purpose of the law?

            If the court were to rule that the intent of the court was that partial screening is still screening, how would that be rewriting the law ? I would argue that it is being correctly interpreted w.r.t. legislative intent. If legislative intent is not important, why ask the question at all? And if legislative intent is important, why not be accurate in establishing it?

          • Oh, whoops…forget to answer the motel question.

            https://blogs.mprnews.org/newscut/2017/04/burglary-conviction-rests-on-this-question-is-a-motel-room-a-building/

            It’s both a floor wax and a dessert topping.

          • Alberto Sappwood

            Yes. I’m familiar with the case. Judge Stauber’s dissent is not compelling. Notably, he improperly applies a factor found in Minn. Stat. § 645.16 without first determining that the language is ambiguous (it’s not).

          • >>It’s both a floor wax and a dessert topping.<<

            BIG points for the SNL reference.

            😀

  • Barton

    I am having the same problem I had last year with this whole debate. If they are collector cars, why isn’t he protecting them from the elements anyway? If they aren’t restored yet, then they are only potential collector cars (or “junk”) at the present. And if they are junk, then there are other statutes that would apply.

    • “Collector car” is a licensing designation.

    • Angry Jonny

      A car that is 25 years older than this year can be licensed as a collector car, with collector plates.

      • Jack

        So what you are saying is that I hang on to my long enough, I can get collector plates? The old Honda only has another 8 years to go…..

        • Angry Jonny

          There are certain other stipulations. You can’t slap collector plates on a car used as a daily driver, for instance. I don’t know how ardently that’s enforced, so if you really feel like it you can probably do it. Your insurance company would probably pick up on the change of licensure, however, and you’d have some ‘splainin’ to dooo.

          • A car 20 years old can be deemed a “collector” car.

            Enforcement: They apparently don’t enforce the “Daily driver” that much, one just has to have an additional car in their name that one designates as their main source of transportation.

            Plates: Collector cars have either one or two “collector” plates (up to the owner) or plates from the year of the car. If one has, say, a 1971 collector car, that individual can run 1971 plates as long as the plate numbers aren’t already in circulation.

          • Angry Jonny

            I’ve got the original 1965 plates on my 1965 Galaxie. I’ve got collectors on my 1971 Duster and 1959 Austin Healey. Thought it is/was 25 years instead of 20. I wonder if that changed or if I just imagined that. Anywho, yeah, in my experience the enforcement of daily driver-ing in a collector plated car is probably low on the list of priorities for law enforcement.

          • >>in my experience the enforcement of daily driver-ing in a collector plated car is probably low on the list of priorities for law enforcement.<<

            DD enforcement is basically non-existent.

  • Angry Jonny

    Taking the purely emotional position here, but Xrist, can’t a guy have an old car or two in peace? It’s not like they’re up on blocks in the lawn.

  • Rob

    How hard could it be, when the legislature passes a law, to have it accompanied by an Intent section, which would tell everybody…wait for it…what the legislature’s intent is?

  • Right. I get that the legislature doesn’t want the courts using its information available to the general public.

    • Alberto Sappwood

      The legislature doesn’t want the courts rewriting the laws based on what one person said one time in committee, yes.