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Washington Supreme Court Holds Riding Lawnmower Not Motor Vehicle Under Theft Statute

The Washington Supreme Court held that, as a matter of law, a riding lawnmower is not a motor vehicle for purposes of the state’s theft of a motor vehicle statute.

In 2015, Joshua Barnes was arrested forattempting to steal a riding lawnmower. He was charged with multiple offenses, including theft of a motor vehicle under RCW § 9A.56.065. The statute does not define the term“motor vehicle.”

Barnes objected to the charge, arguing that riding lawnmowers are similar to golf carts, which are explicitly excluded from the definition of motor vehicle under other state statutes. The State countered that a riding lawnmower is “self-propelled” and “capable of being moved upon a public highway” and thus a motor vehicle under the statute.

Both the trial court and Court of Appeals agreed with Barnes, and the State appealed.

The Washington Supreme Court instructed that when a statute does not define a term, courts must give the term“its plain and ordinary meaning unless a contrary legislative intent is indicated.”

In reviewing the legislative history of the bill containing the statute at issue, the Supreme Court determined that the legislative intent for its passage was for“the explicit purpose of curbing the rising rate of auto thefts.”Accordingly, the Court concluded that the “legislature has explicitly indicated it intended to focus this statute on cars and other automobiles” and held “that a riding lawn mower is not a ‘motor vehicle’ under RCW 9A.56.065.”

TheWashington Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeals’decision and remanded to the trial court for further proceedings. See: State v. Barnes, 2017 Wash. LEXIS 983 (2017). 

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