Sitting In Someone Else’s Running Car Can Be Considered Theft
Somsalao Thonesavanh found a running car parked in his driveway, being warmed up under cold conditions. He knocked on the front door of the vehicle owner’s house. When he didn’t receive an answer, he entered the vehicle. Meanwhile, the owner called 911 and an officer was dispatched to the residence.
Thonesavanh was sitting in the vehicle when the officer arrived with the doors locked. He was asked to come out and was placed under arrest. Thonesavanh was subsequently charged with car theft, and asked that the court remove the charge because he didn’t take the vehicle anywhere. Two lower courts concluded that he was innocent. However, the state’s supreme court reversed the decision.
Thonesavanh was charged according to a Minnesota law that states anyone who “takes or drives a motor vehicle” without the consent of its owner can be found guilty of vehicle theft. The word “take,” according to the supreme court, is ambiguous and has 80 different definitions in the American Heritage Dictionary. Some definitions require movement, others do not. Those that don’t require movement state “take” can mean “to seize with authority or legal right” or “to get possession of,” such as is the case with larceny or robbery.
In the court’s opinion, “If the crimes of simple robbery and theft are simply different degrees of the same crime, it would make little sense for us to ascribe one meaning to the word ‘takes’ in the simple-robbery statute—adverse possession of property belonging to another—but an entirely different meaning to the same word in the motor-vehicle-theft statute—movement of the property…Three canons, one intrinsic and two extrinsic, point toward a construction of the word “takes” that requires only adverse possession, not movement, yet application of the rule of lenity would require us to adopt the other construction, the one requiring movement, which is the far less reasonable alternative. As this case demonstrates, if we lived in a world in which the rule of lenity were a first resort, there would be no other canons.”
Justice G. Barry Anderson stated further, “Here, interpreting ‘takes’ to require movement would not make ‘drives’ redundant because motor vehicles can be moved without being driven, such as by towing or pushing them. Nevertheless, because motor vehicles are almost always moved by driving them, interpreting ‘takes’ to require movement would create substantial overlap with ‘drives.’ Therefore, interpreting “takes” to not require movement is the more natural reading of the statute.” Therefore, according to the court, the person does not need to actually move or drive the vehicle in order to be charged.
The Justice added that the defendant could have read up on Minnesota law before he decided to sit in a running car that wasn’t his, realizing this is likely illegal. “Even if defendants do not read the statute before they act, the fact remains that if they wanted to do so, they could learn what the law prohibits,” he wrote. “Furthermore, a robust rule of lenity requires legislators to draft statutes more clearly.” Moral of the story – whether cold or not, do not sit in someone else’s running car on your property waiting for them to return.