You can steal a car in Minnesota just by sitting in it, court rules

The Minnesota Supreme Court ruled a car doesn’t have to move to be stolen.

If you get in someone's car without permission, you can be charged with stealing it – even if it never moves an inch.

That judgement came down from the Minnesota Supreme Court on Wednesday, in the case of Somsalao Thonesavanh.

Thonesavah's case is quite unique. He was arrested in December 2014 after a Worthington man identified in court documents as "J.V." called police to report someone he did not know – Thonesavanh – was banging on the door of his house. 

When an officer arrived at the residence, Thonesavanh was sitting in a vehicle in the driveway. J.V. told police he had been warming up the car before he had to leave for work, and he hadn't given the man permission to get in, the documents say. 

The Worthington Daily Globe says Thonesavanh told officers he was walking somewhere when he got into the car because he was cold, and that was the same reason he was knocking at the door. But in the end, he was still charged with auto theft.

But because Minnesota law says a car thief “takes or drives a motor vehicle without the consent of the owner” – and Thonesavanh didn't take or drive it anywhere – he challenged the charge, and it was dismissed in district court, the documents say.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal in June 2016, effectively ruling that if a car doesn't move, it isn't theft.

But now the state Supreme Court has reversed the two lower courts' rulings.

You don't have to move a car to 'take' it

In Wednesday's Minnesota Supreme Court opinion, Justice David Stras says it all comes down to the word "takes."

The issue is "whether adversely possessing a motor vehicle, even for a brief period, rises to the level of a taking" under Minnesota Statute, Stras writes.

Stras says there are over 80 definitions for "take" in the American Heritage Dictionary. 

But he rejected the lower courts' use of the rule of lenity – which requires ambiguous laws to be decided in favor of the defendant. He argues that if "takes" required movement, then the Minnesota Statute wouldn't say "takes or drives" – which makes it unambiguous.

So while the lower courts had interpreted that "takes" in the motor vehicle theft statute required Thonesavanh to move the vehicle, Stras and the majority of the court found that "taking" a vehicle "requires only adverse possession, not movement."

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