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State v. Barnes

Supreme Court of Washington, En Banc

October 12, 2017

STATE OF WASHINGTON, Petitioner,
v.
JOSHUA M. BARNES, Respondent.

          OWENS, J.

         In 2015, after attempting to steal a riding lawn mower, Joshua Barnes was arrested and charged with theft of a motor vehicle. He filed a motion to dismiss, claiming that a riding lawn mower is not a "motor vehicle" under RCW 9A.56.065, Washington's theft of a motor vehicle statute.

         RCW 9A.56.065 prohibits theft of a motor vehicle. However, neither the statute nor the criminal code explicitly defines the term "motor vehicle." Though a plain reading of the term could conceivably include a riding lawn mower, the legislature intended otherwise. Because the act itself denotes a restrained definition, we find that as a matter of law, a riding lawn mower is not a "motor vehicle" for purposes of the theft of a motor vehicle statute.

         FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         In 2015, Barnes and his girlfriend allegedly tried to steal a riding lawn mower from a property outside Leavenworth, Washington. After seeing a pickup truck drive past her home, the property owner heard her riding lawn mower starting up. Looking out a window, she saw Barnes attempting to ride her lawn mower up a ramp and onto the bed of his pickup truck. The owner confronted Barnes, who returned the lawn mower. As he and his girlfriend drove away, the owner wrote down the license plate number and called the police, providing a description of both individuals. Barnes was arrested two days later and charged with second degree theft and second degree criminal trespass. The State later added the charge of theft of a motor vehicle under RCW 9A.56.065 and 9A.56.020.

         Barnes objected to the motor vehicle charge under State v. Knapstad, 107 Wn.2d 346, 729 P.2d 48 (1986). He argued that the definition of "motor vehicle" does not include riding lawn mowers. He pointed to RCW 46.04.320 and RCW 46.04.670, the definitions of "motor vehicle" and "vehicle" in our vehicle and traffic statutes, noting that a riding lawn mower is similar to a golf cart under those statutes. Because golf carts are explicitly excluded from either definition, Barnes contended that the legislature similarly intended to exclude riding lawn mowers. Because lawn mowers are designed for pruning grass rather than for transporting people or cargo on a public roadway, he argued they are not included in the theft of a motor vehicle statute.

         The State countered that the statute is clear on its face. It noted that the lawn mower is "self-propelled, " as required by RCW 46.04.320. Further, it is "capable of being moved upon a public highway" while carrying people or cargo as required by RCW 46.04.670. Because a lawn mower fits into the definitions provided in our vehicle and traffic laws, and because the legislature did not include an explicit exception for lawn mowers, the State argued a riding lawn mower qualifies as a "motor vehicle."

         The superior court agreed with Barnes. It explained that if a statute is plain on its face, the court must give effect to that plain meaning. However, it noted the court is also required to take into account the statute's context and to effectuate the legislature's intent. Accordingly, the trial court found the legislature had not intended that riding lawn mowers be included under the theft of a motor vehicle statute and dismissed the charge.

         The State delayed prosecution of Barnes's remaining charges and moved the Court of Appeals for review. The Court of Appeals affirmed. State v. Barnes, 196 Wn.App. 261, 382 P.3d 729 (2016). It noted that if a statute is clear, the plain language should be taken on its face. However, the court's fundamental task is to "ascertain and carry out the intent of the legislature." Id. at 266. It opined that the statute is clear on its face, but questioned "whether we should always follow the plain meaning principle." Id. at 269. It reasoned that "[a] thing within the letter of the law, but not within its spirit, may be held inoperative when it would otherwise lead to an absurd conclusion." Id. at 271 (citing Murphy v. Campbell Inv. Co., 79 Wn.2d 417, 421, 486 P.2d 1080 (1971)). Because of this, the Court of Appeals agreed with the trial court that a riding lawn mower is not a "motor vehicle" for purposes of the statute. Id. at 276.

         The State sought discretionary review, which we granted. State v. Barnes, 187 Wn.2d 1017, 390 P.3d 348 (2017).

         ISSUE

         Is a riding lawn mower a "motor vehicle" for purposes of RCW 9A.56.065?

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Under Knaps tad, the trial court should dismiss a criminal charge if there are "no disputed material facts and the undisputed facts do not raise a prima facie case of guilt as a matter of law." State v. Bauer, 180 Wn.2d 929, 935, 329 P.3d 67 (2014) (citing Knapstad, 107 Wn.2d at 356-57). We review Knqpstad findings de novo. State v. Montano, 169 Wn.2d 872, 876, 239 P.3d 360 (2010).

         ANALYSIS

         Our "paramount duty in statutory interpretation is to give effect to the Legislature's intent." State v. Elgin, 118 Wn.2d 551, 555, 825 P.2d 314 (1992) (citing Wash. Pub. Power Supply Sys. v. Gen. Elec. Co., 113 Wn.2d 288, 292, 778 P.2d 1047 (1989)). When a statute does not define a term, we give the term '"its plain and ordinary meaning unless a contrary legislative intent is indicated.'" State v. Jones, 172 Wn.2d 236, 242, 257 P.3d 616 (quoting Ravenscroft v. Wash. Water Power Co., 136 Wn.2d 911, 920-21, 969 P.2d 75 (1998)). We generally derive this plain meaning from the "context of the entire act" as well as other related statutes. Jametsky v. Olsen, 179 Wn.2d 756, 762, 317 P.3d 1003 (2014) (citing Dep 't of Ecology v. Campbell & Gwinn, LLC, 146 Wn.2d 1, 11, 43 P.3d 4 (2002)). We may also determine the plain meaning of an undefined term from a standard English dictionary. State v. Fuentes, 183 Wn.2d 149, 160, 352 P.3d 152 (citing State v. Bahl, 164 Wn.2d 739, 754, 193 P.3d 678 (2008)).

         Here, RCW 9A.56.065 does not explicitly define "motor vehicle." Both parties suggest we use the term "vehicle" as defined in RCW 9A.04.110(29), using by reference the definition of "motor vehicle" in our vehicle and transport laws. RCW 46.04.320, .670. However, we decline to do so. The legislature chose not to define "motor vehicle" in our theft statutes. Because the term is undefined, we give it its plain and ordinary meaning as ascertained from a standard English dictionary. Fuentes, 183 Wn.2d at 160.[1]

         A "motor vehicle" is defined as "an automotive vehicle not operated on rails; esp[ecially]: one with rubber tires for use on highways." WEBSTER'S THIRD New International Dictionary 1476 (2002). "Automotive" is defined as "containing within itself the means of propulsion ... of, relating to, or concerned with vehicles or machines that propel themselves (as automobiles, trucks, airplanes, motorboats)." Id. at 148. In the context of this statute, these definitions contemplate cars and other automobiles designed for transport of people or cargo, but not machines designed for other purposes yet capable of transporting people or cargo. Yet these definitions could conceivably include riding lawn mowers. Though designed for pruning grass, riding lawn mowers are nonetheless self-propelled means of transport. However, the legislature has explicitly indicated a contrary legislative intent.

         The act itself indicates that the legislature contemplated automobiles, rather than riding lawn mowers, when it used the term "motor vehicle" in the theft of a motor vehicle statute. The 2007 act's short title is "the Elizabeth Nowak-Washington auto theft prevention act." LAWS OF 2007, ch. 199, § 29.[2] In its findings, the legislature used the term "motor vehicle" or "vehicle" 10 times. Id. § 1. Yet, it used the terms "car, " "auto, " or "auto theft" 14 times. Id. It further noted that "[t]he family car is a priority of most individuals and families." Id. § l(1)(a). While other crime had decreased over time, "auto theft ha[d] increased over fifty-five percent" since 1994; over 50, 000 thefts occurred in 2005 alone. Id. § l(1)(b). The legislature also noted that "auto theft ... is linked more and more to offenders engaged in other crimes." Id. § l(1)(c). Indeed, "[m]any stolen vehicles are used by criminals involved in such crimes as robbery, burglary, and assault." Id. The legislature passed this bill with the explicit purpose of curbing the rising rate of auto thefts.

         While not necessary to our holding, the statute's legislative history also supports the conclusion that the legislature never intended riding lawn mowers to be included under the theft of a motor vehicle statute. Before passage, advocates of the bill noted the high rate of auto theft and the comparatively low penalty for repeat offenders under the then-current theft scheme. H.B. REP. ON ENGROSSED THIRD SUBSTITUTE BILL 1001, at 9-10, 60th Leg., Reg. Sess. (Wash. 2007). They explained auto theft's connection to other crimes, including identity theft, methamphetamine possession, and gang activity. Id. It is clear that auto theft, not lawn mower theft, was the primary concern when the bill was drafted. Where that is the case, courts will, consistent with other relevant statutory language, construe a general term so as to further that specific purpose. See Yates v. United States, __U.S. __, 135 S.Ct. 1074, 1080, 191 L.Ed.2d. 64 (2015) (construing the term "tangible object, " in destruction-of-evidence statute passed to combat corporate fraud, to incorporate only those objects that can store information, and thus exclude fish).

         Here, Barnes did not attempt to steal a "family car, " nor is the riding lawn mower he attempted to take a comparable investment to a family car. He did not attempt to steal anything that could reasonably be used for a later robbery, burglary, or assault. There is nothing to indicate a connection between the theft of lawn mowers and drug possession or gang activity.

         The plain meaning of "motor vehicle" is clear. The legislature has explicitly indicated it intended to focus this statute on cars and other automobiles. It was responding to increased auto theft, not increased riding lawn mower theft. Though the definition of "motor vehicle" could be more expansive in other statutes, the only statute at issue here is the theft of a motor vehicle statute. Because of this, we hold that a riding lawn mower is not a "motor vehicle" under RCW 9A.56.065.

         CONCLUSION

         We hold that a riding lawn mower is not a "motor vehicle" under RCW 9A.56.065. The statute does not define "motor vehicle" for purposes of theft. However, the legislature has made its intent clear. The session law indicates it was designed to combat auto theft and associated crime, not the theft of lawn mowers. Barnes cannot be charged with theft of a motor vehicle for stealing a riding lawn mower. Therefore, we affirm the Court of Appeals and remand to the trial court for further proceedings.

          WIGGINS, J. (concurring)

         I agree with the lead opinion's conclusion that a lawn mower is not a motor vehicle for purposes of RCW 9A.56.065. I write separately to clarify two analytical steps: First, we should consider the entirety of the statute when interpreting the phrase "motor vehicle." Second, after concluding that "motor vehicle" is ambiguous, we must serve the legislature's stated intent in light of the circumstances in which the statute was passed. Following this analytical process, I conclude that the legislature did not intend the statute that it named the "Elizabeth Nowack-Washington auto theft prevention act"[1] to encompass theft of riding lawn mowers.

         I. The Meaning of "Motor Vehicle" in RCW 9A.56.065 Is Ambiguous

         I agree with the lead opinion's characterization of our statutory interpretation process. Our "'paramount duty in statutory interpretation is to give effect to the Legislature's intent.'" Lead opinion at 4 (quoting State v. Elgin,118 Wn.2d 551, 555, 825 P.2d 314 (1992)). "If the statute's meaning is plain on its face, we give effect to that plain meaning as the expression of what was intended." TracFone Wireless, Inc. v. Dep't of Revenue,170 Wn.2d 273, 281, 242 P.3d 810 (2010). In determining whether a statute conveys a plain meaning, "that meaning is discerned from all that the Legislature has said in the statute and related statutes which disclose legislative intent about the provision in question." Dep't of Ecology v. Campbell & Gwinn, LLC,146 Wn.2d 1, 11, 43 P.3d 4 (2002). "If a statute is ambiguous, we 'may look to the legislative history of the statute and the circumstances surrounding its enactment ...


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