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Do You Need to Actually Drive a Car to Be Guilty of Theft?

It's a question that only raises more questions: Can a person who locks himself in another person's car without permission be convicted of vehicle theft? Who is this person? How'd they get into the car? Isn't the whole point of stealing a car, you know, to drive it away?

But the Minnesota Supreme Court has an answer: Yes.

To Drive or to Take?

According to prosecutors, the owner of the vehicle left it idling in his driveway one winter morning to warm up, when Somsalao Thonesavanh knocked on his front door. The owner called 911, but by the time an officer arrived, Thonesavanh had locked himself in the car, still in the driveway. Police eventually persuaded him to leave the car, placed him under arrest, and charged him with motor vehicle theft.

Under Minnesota's vehicle theft statute, someone is guilty of theft if he or she "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." Clearly Thonesavanh didn't "drive" the car; but did he "take" it?

One Too Many Words

The Minnesota Supreme Court admitted that the word "takes" in the statute is ambiguous, but decided it could clear up that ambiguity, agreeing with prosecutors that "all that is required to 'take' a motor vehicle is to adversely possess it." How does one adversely possess a car? The court cited the state's simple robbery statute, which requires only temporary control over property to count as theft.

The court also pointed to a perhaps esoteric aspect of judicial decision-making: canons of interpretation. One such canon -- the one against "surplusage" -- "favors giving each word or phrase in a statute a distinct, not an identical, meaning." If the justices held that "takes" has the same meaning as "drives," one of those words would be extraneous, so lawmakers must have intended one of those words to have a different meaning.

So yeah, lock yourself in someone else's car in Minnesota? You can be guilty of vehicle theft.

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