State v. Van Wolvelaere, NO. 97283-4

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Washington
Writing for the CourtGORDON MCCLOUD, J.
Citation195 Wash.2d 597,461 P.3d 1173
Decision Date30 April 2020
Docket NumberNO. 97283-4
Parties STATE of Washington, Petitioner, v. Imra Green Van WOLVELAERE , Defendant, Julia E. Tucker, Respondent.

195 Wash.2d 597
461 P.3d 1173

STATE of Washington, Petitioner,
v.
Imra Green Van WOLVELAERE , Defendant, Julia E. Tucker, Respondent.

NO. 97283-4

Supreme Court of Washington.

Argued January 21, 2020
Filed APRIL 30, 2020


Carole Louise Highland, Gregory Lee Zempel, Kittitas County Prosecuting Attorney, 205 W. 5th Ave. Ste. 213, Ellensburg, WA, 98926-2887, for Petitioner.

Dennis W. Morgan, Attorney at Law, Po Box 1019, Republic, WA, 99166-1019, for Respondent.

GORDON MCCLOUD, J.

461 P.3d 1174
195 Wash.2d 598

¶1 Julia Tucker stole a snowmobile and was convicted of theft of a motor vehicle. On appeal, she argues that she could not have committed that crime because a snowmobile is not a motor vehicle under the relevant statute, RCW 9A.56.065.

¶2 In State v. Barnes , a fractured, 3-3-3 opinion, we held that a riding lawn mower is not a motor vehicle under that statute. 189 Wash.2d 492, 498, 403 P.3d 72 (2017) (lead opinion), 508, 403 P.3d 72 (Wiggins, J., concurring). Although the statutory language, when read in context and in accordance with our general rules of interpretation, excludes riding lawn

195 Wash.2d 599

mowers, it unambiguously includes snowmobiles. We affirm Tucker's conviction.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

¶3 The State accused Tucker1 of stealing a snowmobile and charged her with theft of a motor vehicle. Clerk's Papers (CP) at 2.2 A jury found her guilty. CP at 141. After trial, Tucker argued that she could not have committed the crime because a snowmobile is not a motor vehicle for purposes of the theft of a motor vehicle statute, RCW 9A.56.065. CP at 147-52. Observing that a snowmobile has a motor, is a vehicle, and unlike a lawn mower, must be licensed, the trial judge rejected Tucker's argument and sentenced her to 26 months. Tr. of Proceedings (TP) (May 26, 2017) at 341; TP (Aug. 18, 2017) at 366; see also CP at 209.

¶4 The Court of Appeals reversed. State v. Van Wolvelaere , 8 Wash. App. 2d 705, 440 P.3d 1005 (2019). Relying on our decision in Barnes , a majority of that court held that the statute criminalizes only theft of "a car or other automobile." Id. at 706-09, 440 P.3d 1005 .

¶5 Judge Korsmo dissented. He would have distinguished Barnes on the ground that a snowmobile's "primary purpose" is "to transport humans and/or their goods," while a riding lawn mower's primary purpose is to "mow the lawn." Id. at 712, 440 P.3d 1005 (Korsmo, J., dissenting).

¶6 We granted review, 194 Wash.2d 1008, 451 P.3d 343 (2019), and reverse.

195 Wash.2d 600

ANALYSIS

¶7 We review this statutory interpretation issue de novo. State v. Ervin , 169 Wash.2d 815, 820, 239 P.3d 354 (2010) (citing In re Det. of Williams , 147 Wash.2d 476, 486, 55 P.3d 597 (2002) ). Our main goal is to " ‘determine the legislature's intent.’ " Id. (quoting State v. Jacobs , 154 Wash.2d 596, 600, 115 P.3d 281 (2005) ). The "surest indication" of that intent is "the text of the statutory provision in question, as well as ‘the context of the statute in which that provision is found, related provisions, and the statutory scheme as a whole.’ " Id. (quoting Dep't of Ecology v. Campbell & Gwinn, LLC , 146 Wash.2d 1, 9, 43 P.3d 4 (2002) ). If the text and context is clear, we stop. Id. (citing Campbell & Gwinn , 146 Wash.2d at 9, 43 P.3d 4 ). Only if the text and context is unclear do we go further in our analysis. Id. (quoting Christensen v. Ellsworth , 162 Wash.2d 365, 373, 173 P.3d 228 (2007) ).

I. The legislature defined "motor vehicle" as a self-propelled device that is capable of moving and transporting people or property on a public highway, and we are bound by that definition

¶8 To determine whether a snowmobile is a motor vehicle for purposes of the theft of a motor vehicle statute, we begin with the theft of a motor vehicle statute itself. That statute defines the crime as follows: "A person is guilty of theft of a motor vehicle if he or she commits theft of a motor

461 P.3d 1175

vehicle." RCW 9A.56.065(1). The statute does not define "motor vehicle."

¶9 We therefore turn to the Washington Criminal Code's list of definitions; the legislature instructs us to use these definitions when interpreting a criminal statute "unless a different meaning plainly is required." RCW 9A.04.110. That list defines "vehicle" as "a ‘motor vehicle’ as defined in the vehicle and traffic laws, any aircraft, or any vessel equipped for propulsion by mechanical means or by

195 Wash.2d 601

sail." RCW 9A.04.110(29). So the Washington Criminal Code instructs us to proceed to the cross-referenced vehicle and traffic laws, located in Title 46 RCW (Motor Vehicles).3

¶10 The vehicle and traffic laws define "motor vehicle" as "a vehicle that is self-propelled or a vehicle that is propelled by electric power obtained from overhead trolley wires but not operated upon rails." RCW 46.04.320(1).4 "Vehicle" is further defined as a "device capable of being moved upon a public highway and in, upon, or by which any persons or property is or may be transported or drawn upon a public highway." RCW 46.04.670.5 So a motor vehicle is a self-propelled device (a description of its mechanics) that is capable of moving and transporting people or property on a public highway (a description of its function).

¶11 Where, as here, the legislature has provided a definition, we are not free to create our own. State v. Watson , 146 Wash.2d 947, 954, 51 P.3d 66 (2002) ("Legislative definitions included in the statute are controlling." (citing State v. Sullivan , 143 Wash.2d 162, 175, 19 P.3d 1012 (2001) )). The trial judge reasoned that a snowmobile is a motor vehicle in part because a snowmobile must be licensed (at least in some situations). TP (May 26, 2017) at 341. But the legislature's definition of "motor vehicle" says nothing about a licensing requirement. Although such a requirement may

195 Wash.2d 602

provide the courts with a useful test, we cannot simply create a new requirement out of thin air.

¶12 The dissenting judge's "primary purpose" test is closer to the mark. See Van Wolvelaere , 8 Wash. App. 2d at 712, 440 P.3d 1005 (Korsmo, J., dissenting). Courts do have to analyze a device's function—that is, whether the device is capable of moving and transporting people or property on a public highway. But that function does not have to be the device's primary purpose.

¶13 In sum, the legislature has provided a definition of motor vehicle that requires us to analyze the device's mechanics (is it self-propelled?) as well as the device's function (is it capable of moving and transporting people or property on a public highway?).

II. A "snowmobile" is a self-propelled device that is capable of moving and transporting people or property on a public highway

¶14 We must determine whether a snowmobile is a self-propelled device that is capable6 of moving and transporting people or property on a public highway. Common sense informs us that a snowmobile is a self-propelled device. So do the vehicle and traffic laws to which the Washington Criminal Code refers us. Those laws explicitly define "snowmobile" as " ‘a self-propelled vehicle that is capable of traveling over snow or ice.’ " RCW 46.04.546 (emphasis added). And a snowmobile

461 P.3d 1176

is obviously capable of transporting people or property.

¶15 The only remaining question is whether that self-propelled device is capable of moving and transporting people or property on a public highway .7 That phrase limits the breadth of the "motor vehicle" definition. Some self-propelled

195 Wash.2d 603

devices are unquestionably able to move and to transport people or property on a public highway: cars, trucks, vans, motorcycles. Some clearly are not: boats, Jet Skis. For others, it's a closer call.

¶16 In Barnes , the lead opinion noted that riding lawn mowers are "designed for pruning grass," 189 Wash.2d at 497, 403 P.3d 72 , and the concurrence found the definition of "motor vehicle" ambiguous as to riding lawn mowers in part because people generally don't operate them on public highways, id. at 506, 403 P.3d 72 .8 Similarly, people generally don't operate snowmobiles, which are designed for use on snow and ice, on public highways.

¶17 But any ambiguity as to whether a snowmobile is capable of moving and transporting people or property on a public highway is dispelled by the snowmobile act. That act is located in chapter 46.10 RCW, right within Title 46 RCW9 —the very title to which the definition of "vehicle" in the Washington Criminal Code, RCW 9A.04.110(29), cross-references us. The snowmobile act, RCW 46.10.470, not only makes clear that a snowmobile is capable of moving and transporting people or property on a public highway, at least when the highway is covered with snow or ice, but also

195 Wash.2d 604

makes clear that it is legally permitted to do so. The act specifically allows people "to operate a snowmobile upon a public roadway or highway " in the following four circumstances:

Where such roadway or highway is completely covered with snow or ice and has been closed by the responsible governing body to motor vehicle traffic during the winter months; or
When the responsible governing body gives notice that such roadway or highway is open to snowmobiles or all-terrain vehicle use; or
In an emergency during the period of time when and at locations where snow upon the roadway or highway renders such impassible to travel by automobile; or
When traveling along a designated snowmobile trail.

RCW 46.10.470 (emphasis added). If a snowmobile were not capable of moving or transporting people or property on a public highway, then this statute would be meaningless. What purpose would this law serve if a snowmobile were not even "capable of," RCW 46.04.670, taking advantage of the four listed circumstances?

¶18 Tucker argues that the first of the four circumstances in RCW 46.10.470, quoted above, suggests that a snowmobile is not a motor vehicle. That circumstance provides

461 P.3d 1177

that a person may operate a...

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10 practice notes
  • State v. Madden, No. 80302-6-I
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Washington
    • February 16, 2021
    ...their DNA. State v. Van Wolvelaere, 8 Wash. App. 2d 705, 710, 440 P.3d 1005 (2019), rev'd on other grounds by State v. Van Wolvelaere, 195 Wash.2d 597, 461 P.3d 1173 (2020). RCW 43.43.754(1)(a)(i) also requires collection of an offender's DNA if they commit fourth degree with domestic viole......
  • State v. Level, 37463-7-III
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Washington
    • August 24, 2021
    ...of its mechanics) that is capable of moving and transporting people or property on a public highway (a description of its function)." 195 Wash.2d 597, 601, 461 P.3d 1173 (2020).¶ 19 A moped readily meets the statute-derived definition set forth in Van Wolvelaere . Being "motorized," it meet......
  • State v. Cargill, 36140-3-III
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Washington
    • December 15, 2020
    ...issue presented here. The stay was lifted June 18, 2020, upon the issuance of the mandate in State v. Van Wolvelaere, 195 Wn.2d 597, 461 P.3d 1173 (2020). The parties filed supplemental briefs concerning Van Wolvelaere. The panel then considered the appeal without hearing further argument. ......
  • State v. Marjama, No. 53141-1-II
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Washington
    • October 6, 2020
    ...witnessed or heard the offense. We disagree. ¶ 12 Questions of statutory interpretation are reviewed de novo. State v. Wolvelaere , 195 Wash.2d 597, 600, 461 P.3d 1173 (2020). The primary goal of statutory interpretation is to ascertain and give effect to the legislature's intent. Id. This ......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
10 cases
  • State v. Madden, No. 80302-6-I
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Washington
    • February 16, 2021
    ...their DNA. State v. Van Wolvelaere, 8 Wash. App. 2d 705, 710, 440 P.3d 1005 (2019), rev'd on other grounds by State v. Van Wolvelaere, 195 Wash.2d 597, 461 P.3d 1173 (2020). RCW 43.43.754(1)(a)(i) also requires collection of an offender's DNA if they commit fourth degree with domestic viole......
  • State v. Level, 37463-7-III
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Washington
    • August 24, 2021
    ...of its mechanics) that is capable of moving and transporting people or property on a public highway (a description of its function)." 195 Wash.2d 597, 601, 461 P.3d 1173 (2020).¶ 19 A moped readily meets the statute-derived definition set forth in Van Wolvelaere . Being "motorized," it meet......
  • State v. Marjama, No. 53141-1-II
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Washington
    • October 6, 2020
    ...witnessed or heard the offense. We disagree. ¶ 12 Questions of statutory interpretation are reviewed de novo. State v. Wolvelaere , 195 Wash.2d 597, 600, 461 P.3d 1173 (2020). The primary goal of statutory interpretation is to ascertain and give effect to the legislature's intent. Id. This ......
  • State v. Cargill, 36140-3-III
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Washington
    • December 15, 2020
    ...issue presented here. The stay was lifted June 18, 2020, upon the issuance of the mandate in State v. Van Wolvelaere, 195 Wn.2d 597, 461 P.3d 1173 (2020). The parties filed supplemental briefs concerning Van Wolvelaere. The panel then considered the appeal without hearing further argument. ......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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