of Appeals Office of Appellate Courts
Swanson, Minnesota Attorney General, Saint Paul, Minnesota;
and Kathleen A. Kusz, Nobles County Attorney, Travis J.
Smith, Special Assistant County Attorney, Slayton, Minnesota,
D. Nyvold, Fridley, Minnesota, for respondent.
word "takes" in the motor-vehicle-theft statute,
Minn. Stat. § 609.52, subd. 2(a)(17) (2016), requires
only adverse possession of a vehicle.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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).
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.
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).
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,  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.
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 ...