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State v. Thonesavanh

Supreme Court of Minnesota

September 6, 2017

State of Minnesota, Appellant,
v.
Somsalao Thonesavanh, Respondent.

         Court of Appeals Office of Appellate Courts

          Lori Swanson, Minnesota Attorney General, Saint Paul, Minnesota; and Kathleen A. Kusz, Nobles County Attorney, Travis J. Smith, Special Assistant County Attorney, Slayton, Minnesota, for appellant.

          Mark D. Nyvold, Fridley, Minnesota, for respondent.

         SYLLABUS

         1. The word "takes" in the motor-vehicle-theft statute, Minn. Stat. § 609.52, subd. 2(a)(17) (2016), requires only adverse possession of a vehicle.

         2. The rule of lenity applies only when grievous ambiguity exists after the other canons of construction have failed to resolve the ambiguity in a criminal statute.

          OPINION

          STRAS, JUSTICE.

         The question presented in this case is whether an individual may commit motor-vehicle theft without moving the vehicle. The district court dismissed the motor-vehicle-theft charge against respondent Somsalao Thonesavanh for lack of probable cause, concluding that the word "takes" in Minn. Stat. § 609.52, subd. 2(a)(17) (2016), required Thonesavanh to move the vehicle, something that indisputably did not occur in this case. The court of appeals affirmed. Because we conclude that an individual does not need to move a vehicle to "take" it, we reverse the decision of the court of appeals.

         FACTS

         Early one winter morning, J.V. followed his normal morning routine by starting his car and leaving it running in his driveway before departing for work. Unlike most mornings, however, J.V. noticed a stranger, later identified by police as Thonesavanh, knocking on his front door. Due to the unusual time and circumstances of the visit, J.V. called 911. The officer who responded to J.V.'s call arrived to find Thonesavanh sitting in J.V.'s vehicle, with its doors locked and its rear lights illuminated. The officer eventually persuaded Thonesavanh to unlock the car doors and step out of the vehicle, at which point the officer placed him under arrest.

         Thonesavanh was charged with, among other things, theft of a motor vehicle under Minn. Stat. § 609.52, subd. 2(a)(17). The district court dismissed the motor-vehicle-theft charge, holding that there was no evidence that Thonesavanh had either "take[n] or drive[n]" J.V.'s vehicle, one of which was necessary to convict Thonesavanh of motor- vehicle theft under Minn. Stat. § 609.52, subd. 2(a)(17). Relying on the common law of larceny, the court construed the word "takes" to require "asportation"-that is, a carrying away or movement-of the vehicle. See, e.g., State v. Madden, 163 N.W. 507, 508 (Minn. 1917). The court further concluded that the word "or" between "takes or drives" should be treated as creating a conjunctive relationship between the two words, requiring consideration together. This led the court to hold, as relevant here, that if "drives" requires movement, so does "takes."[1]

         The court of appeals affirmed, but only after first concluding that the motor-vehicle-theft statute was ambiguous. State v. Thonesavanh, 880 N.W.2d 625, 629 (Minn.App. 2016). The court explained that "in the context of Minn. Stat. § 609.52, subd. 2(a)(17), " the word "takes" is "subject to more than one reasonable interpretation" because the statute does not define the term and multiple dictionary definitions exist. Id. at 628. It then resolved the ambiguity by relying on three interpretive canons. First, rather than treating the rule of lenity as a last resort, see State v. Nelson, 842 N.W.2d 433, 443 (Minn. 2014) (discussing the rule of lenity and holding that it applies only when a grievous ambiguity exists after exhausting the other canons of construction), the court relied on it first to adopt Thonesavanh's construction of the statute. Thonesavanh, 880 N.W.2d at 628-29. Second, it applied the whole-statute canon by considering other usages of the word "takes" in the theft statute. Because each of the other instances of the word "takes" in the theft statute contemplated movement, the court reasoned, the motor-vehicle-theft statute must also have such a requirement. Id. at 628. Third, drawing on a similar line of reasoning as the district court, the court of appeals reviewed the common law of larceny, including Madden, which led it to conclude "that a person must move a motor vehicle in order to take it and be guilty of motor vehicle theft." Id. at 629. Accordingly, the court concluded that all three canons pointed in the same direction: toward affirming the dismissal of the motor-vehicle-theft charge due to the absence of any evidence that Thonesavanh moved J.V.'s vehicle.

         ANALYSIS

         This case requires us to determine the meaning of the word "takes" in the motor-vehicle-theft statute, Minn. Stat. § 609.52, subd. 2(a)(17), and specifically whether, to commit the offense, an individual must move the vehicle to "take" it. Determining the meaning of the word "takes" in the motor-vehicle-theft statute presents a question of statutory interpretation that we review de novo. State v. Leathers, 799 N.W.2d 606, 608 (Minn. 2011). The first step in statutory interpretation is to determine whether the statute's language, on its face, is ambiguous. Staab v. Diocese of St. Cloud, 813 N.W.2d 68, 72 (Minn. 2012). "A statute is ambiguous only if it is subject to more than one reasonable interpretation." 500, LLC v. City of Minneapolis, 837 N.W.2d 287, 290 (Minn. 2013). If it is, then we may apply the canons of construction to resolve the ambiguity. See Nelson, 842 N.W.2d at 436.

         I.

         We begin our analysis with the text of the motor-vehicle-theft statute, which is part of a broader statute defining a variety of theft crimes, ranging from theft of cable-television services to theft of motor vehicles. See Minn. Stat. § 609.52 (2016). The specific provision governing motor-vehicle theft, Minn. Stat. § 609.52, subd. 2(a)(17), states in relevant part as follows:

(a) Whoever does any of the following commits theft . . .:
. . .
(17) 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 . . . .

Minn. Stat. § 609.52, subd. 2(a)(17) (emphasis added).

         The offense created by the motor-vehicle-theft statute has three elements. The first element-the actus reus of the crime-is that the individual must "take[] or drive[] a motor vehicle." Id. The second element-an attendant circumstance-requires the actus reus to be accomplished "without the consent of the owner or an authorized agent of the owner." Id. The final element-the mens rea of the crime-is that a particular state of mind must accompany the taking or driving of the vehicle: knowledge or reason to know that "the owner or an authorized agent of the owner did not give consent." Id. The offense is complete once all three elements are met.

         It is undisputed that J.V. did not provide consent for Thonesavanh to enter the car, much less for him to take or drive it. Thonesavanh also does not challenge, at least at this stage, the sufficiency of the evidence that he knew or had reason to know that his actions were done without J.V.'s consent. The only element on which the parties disagree is whether, when Thonesavanh entered J.V.'s car and locked the doors, he satisfied the actus-reus element of the crime: taking or driving the motor vehicle. The parties accurately frame the issue as whether adversely possessing a motor vehicle, even for a brief period, rises to the level of a taking under Minn. Stat. § 609.52, subd. 2(a)(17).

         Despite defining a number of terms, including "motor vehicle" and "property, " the theft statutes do not define "takes" or "drives." We therefore look to dictionary definitions to determine the common and ordinary meanings of these terms. See Jaeger v. Palladium Holdings, LLC, 884 N.W.2d 601, 605 (Minn. 2016). The word "drives, " used as a transitive verb in the motor-vehicle-theft statute, [2] means "to guide, control, or direct (a vehicle), " The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language 547 (5th ed. 2011), or "to operate the mechanism and controls and direct the course of (as a motor vehicle or speedboat), " Webster's Third New International Dictionary 692 (2002). Both of these definitions of the word "drives" contemplate movement.

         The meaning of the word "takes, " the primary focus of the parties' arguments, is less clear. The American Heritage Dictionary defines "take" in over 80 ways, 61 of which define the word as a transitive verb, its usage here. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language 1774-75 (5th ed. 2011). Some of the 61 definitions are plainly inapplicable, but at least two of them, both plausible in light of the remainder of the motor-vehicle-theft statute, appear to require movement: "to carry in one's possession" and "to convey by transportation." Id. Other definitions, also plausible, do not require movement, including "to seize with authority or legal right" and "to get possession of." Id. Equally nondefinitive is Webster's Third New International Dictionary, which has over 90 definitions of the word "take, " some that contemplate movement and others that do not. Compare Webster's Third New International Dictionary 2330 (2002) (defining "take" as "to convey, lead, carry, remove, or cause to go along to another place"), with id. at 2929 (defining "take" as "to get into one's hands or into one's possession, power, or control by force or stratagem"). None of the examples or explanations for "take" in either dictionary are helpful in determining which set of definitions-those ...


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