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State v. Van Wolvelaere

Court of Appeals of Washington, Division 3

May 2, 2019

STATE OF WASHINGTON, Respondent,
v.
IMRA GREEN VAN WOLVELAERE, Defendant, JULIA E. TUCKER, Appellant.

          Lawrence-Berrey, C.J.

         RCW 9A.56.065 makes it a class B felony to commit theft of a motor vehicle. In State v. Barnes, 189 Wn.2d 492, 403 P.3d 72 (2017), the lead and concurring opinions held that a riding lawn mower was not a "motor vehicle" for purposes of that statute. In so holding, six justices agreed that a "motor vehicle" was a car or other automobile. Because a snowmobile is not a car or other automobile, we reverse Julia Tucker's conviction for theft of a motor vehicle.

         FACTS

         In February 2016, Ms. Tucker and Imra Van Wolvelaere broke into a cabin near Stampede Pass. The cabin was accessible only by snowmobiles. The pair stole several items of personal property, including a snowmobile.

         The State charged Ms. Tucker with residential burglary, second degree theft, theft of motor vehicle, and third degree malicious mischief. A jury found Ms. Tucker guilty of first degree criminal trespass and theft of motor vehicle, but could not reach a verdict on the charge of second degree theft. The trial court declared a mistrial on that count, and it later was dismissed without prejudice.

         Defense counsel, relying on Barnes, filed a motion to arrest judgment on the theft of a motor vehicle conviction. The trial court denied the motion on the ground that the snowmobile was licensed and has a motor. Ms. Tucker timely appealed this aspect of her conviction.

         ANALYSIS

         A. Theft of motor vehicle

         RCW 9A.56.065 makes it a class B felony to commit theft of a motor vehicle. The question before us is whether a snowmobile is a "motor vehicle" for purposes of this statute. Barnes is dipositive, and the answer is no.

         In Barnes, the court held that a riding lawn mower was not a "motor vehicle" for purposes of RCW 9A.56.065. Barnes, 189 Wn.2d at 498. The lead opinion, signed by three justices, resorted to the dictionary to define the meaning of "motor vehicle." Id. at 496. "Motor vehicle" was defined as "'an automotive vehicle not operated on rails; esp[ecially]: one with rubber tires for use on highways.'" Id. (quoting Webster's Third New International Dictionary 1476 (2002)). "Automotive" was defined as "'relating to, or concerned with vehicles or machines that propel themselves (as automobiles, trucks, airplanes, motorboats).'" Id. (quoting Webster's, supra, at 148). The court stated, "In the context of [RCW 9A.56.065], 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." Id. at 496-97. The rest of the lead opinion explained the purpose of the "Elizabeth Nowak-Washington auto theft prevention act," which was to "curb[ ] the rising rate of auto thefts." Id. at 497; see Laws of 2007, ch. 199, § 29. The lead opinion concluded, "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." Id. at 498.

         The concurring opinion, authored by Justice Wiggins, garnered the signatures of two other justices. Id. at 508 (Wiggins, J., concurring). Justice Wiggins first determined whether "motor vehicle" in the auto theft prevention act was clear or whether it was ambiguous. Id. at 499. He examined the title of the act, the enacted legislative findings and statements of intent, and the definitions of "motor vehicle theft," "motor vehicle," and "vehicle." Id. at 500-08. Justice Wiggins concluded that "motor vehicle" is an ambiguous phrase. Id. at 507.

         Justice Wiggins next discussed the purpose of RCW 9A.56.065: "[T]he Washington legislature adopted the auto theft prevention act, including RCW 9A.56.065, to address increased car theft and the use of stolen cars in the commission of crimes." Id. at 507. He also noted that adopting a broad definition would raise a constitutional question because a broad definition would not conform to the narrow title of the act. Id. at 508. He then concluded:

Thus, because the act's title refers to auto theft, because the legislature appeared concerned with addressing automobile theft in particular, and because a narrow reading avoids a constitutional dilemma, I conclude that theft of a ...

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