In the recent decision of State v. Barnes, the defendant attempted to steal a riding lawnmower. The defendant drove his truck onto the victim’s property, and started to load the lawnmower into his truck when he was caught in the act. Rather than charge the defendant with Theft in the First or Second Degree, the prosecutor chose to charge the defendant with Theft of Motor Vehicle, presumably because it would carry a longer sentence than regular theft, which all depends on the value of the lawnmower. The trial court dismissed the charge ruling that a lawnmower was not “motor vehicle” under the Theft of Motor Vehicle statute.
Undeterred, the prosecutor appealed the dismissal. On appeal, the court analyzed the Theft of Motor Vehicle statute, and the definition of “motor vehicle” found in RCW Chapter 46, the chapter that defines motor vehicle and traffic laws in Washington State. RCW Chapter 46 contains a broad definition of “motor vehicle” and the court felt that if it were to strictly construe the statutes, that yes, a lawnmower could be a motor vehicle. However, the court also believed that if it were to strictly construe the statute, and accept the broad definition of “motor vehicle” found in RCW Chapter 46, that it “would lead to unintended and silly results.” For instance, if the prosecutor got their way, the court believed that an “iRobot Roomba, a self propelled vacuum, would be a motor vehicle, since one could transport small property on the Roomba.” “Theft of a child’s remote control car that includes a doll in the driver’s seat would also qualify for theft of a motor vehicle if [the court] literally read RCW 46.04.320 and .670.” If the prosecutor got their way, “theft of a lawnmower, Segway, or iRobot Roomba could be treated the same as theft of a Ferrari.”
The court clearly did not want to rule that a lawnmower was a motor vehicle, but the statutes suggested it was. To get around this, the court hinged its decision on the principle that “[t]he spirit or purpose of an enactment should prevail over the express but inept wording” of the statute. The court noted that the “legislature sometimes uses inept language.” Ultimately, the court agreed with the trial court that a lawnmower, for purposes of the Theft of Motor Vehicle statute, was not a motor vehicle and upheld the dismissal.
Will the prosecutor appeal the court’s decision to the Washington Supreme Court? The statutes seem to support the prosecutor’s position but the court believed it was ridiculous to charge someone with Theft of a Motor Vehicle for stealing a riding lawnmower.