State v. Wolvelaere, 043020 WASC, 97283-4

Docket Nº:97283-4
Opinion Judge:GORDON McCLOUD, J.
Party Name:STATE OF WASHINGTON, Petitioner, v. IMRA GREEN VAN WOLVELAERE, Defendant, JULIA E. TUCKER, Respondent.
Judge Panel:MADSEN, J. (dissenting)
Case Date:April 30, 2020
Court:Supreme Court of Washington
 
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STATE OF WASHINGTON, Petitioner,

v.

IMRA GREEN VAN WOLVELAERE, Defendant,

JULIA E. TUCKER, Respondent.

No. 97283-4

Supreme Court of Washington, En Banc

April 30, 2020

GORDON McCLOUD, J.

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.

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 Wn.2d 492, 498, 403 P.3d 72 (2017) (lead opinion), 508 (Wiggins, J., concurring). Although the statutory language, when read in context and in accordance with our general rules of interpretation, excludes riding lawn mowers, it unambiguously includes snowmobiles. We affirm Tucker's conviction.

Factual and Procedural Background

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.

The Court of Appeals reversed. State v. Van Wolvelaere, 8 Wn.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.

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 (Korsmo, J., dissenting).

We granted review, 194 Wn.2d 1008 (2019), and reverse.

Analysis

We review this statutory interpretation issue de novo. State v. Ervin, 169 Wn.2d 815, 820, 239 P.3d 354 (2010) (citing In re Det. of Williams, 147 Wn.2d 476, 486, 55 P.3d 597 (2002)). Our main goal is to "'determine the legislature's intent.'" Id. (quoting State v. Jacobs, 154 Wn.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 Wn.2d 1, 9, 43 P.3d 4 (2002)). If the text and context is clear, we stop. Id. (citing Campbell & Gwinn, 146 Wn.2d at 9). Only if the text and context is unclear do we go further in our analysis. Id. (quoting Christensen v. Ellsworth, 162 Wn.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

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

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 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

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).

Where, as here, the legislature has provided a definition, we are not free to create our own. State v. Watson, 146 Wn.2d 947, 954, 51 P.3d 66 (2002) ("Legislative definitions included in the statute are controlling." (citing State v. Sullivan, 143 Wn.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 provide the courts with a useful test, we cannot simply create a new requirement out of thin air.

The dissenting judge's "primary purpose" test is closer to the mark. See Van Wolvelaere, 8 Wn.App. 2d at 712 (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.

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

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 is obviously capable of transporting people or property.

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 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.

In Barnes, the lead opinion noted that riding lawn mowers are "designed for pruning grass," 189 Wn.2d at 497, 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 506.8 Similarly, people generally don't operate snowmobiles, which are designed for use on snow and ice, on public highways.

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 RCW[9]-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 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?

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 that a person may operate a snowmobile on a public highway when that highway "has been closed by the responsible governing body to motor vehicle traffic during the winter months." Id. (emphasis added). If we were to zoom way in and isolate this one phrase of this one statute from the statutory scheme as a whole, then Tucker might have a point. If a snowmobile is indeed a motor vehicle, then this circumstance could suggest that a person may operate a motor vehicle on a public highway...

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