Lopez Expands Burglary to the Breaking Point

Motel DoorMonday mornings mean Minnesota Court of Appeals decisions. Yesterday morning the Court of Appeals released three published decisions, including two in criminal cases. Both are interesting, but the more meaningful of the two is State of Minnesota v. Lionel Lopez, A16-0947. The facts are not complex: Mr. Lopez was staying in a motel in Willmar when he walked into Z.D.’s unlocked room, took Z.D.’s cell phone and wallet while Z.D. was in the shower, and went back to his own room. Mr. Lopez was charged with, and convicted of, gross misdemeanor theft and first-degree burglary (a felony). He appealed his burglary conviction, arguing that entering a motel room is not entering a “building.”

In Minnesota, burglary is often just a more serious flavor of theft. A third-degree burglary, for example, may involve walking into an open shed, stealing a tool, and leaving, yet be a serious felony (maximum sentence: five years in prison, $10,000 fine) while it would have been only a misdemeanor theft (maximum sentence: ninety days in jail, $1,000 fine) had the tool been on the ground outside the shed. As you get to more serious degrees of burglary, the difference between committing the crime in open air rather than under a roof becomes even more stark. Stealing that same tool out of the open garage of an empty house is second-degree burglary, which carries a maximum ten years in prison and $20,000 fine. And stealing that tool from the open garage of an occupied house is a first-degree burglary, with a mandatory minimum sentence of six months in jail and a maximum sentence of twenty years in prison and a $35,000 fine.

A conviction for first-degree burglary requires (as relevant here) that a person enters a building without consent, the person commits a crime in the building, the building is a “dwelling,” and the building is occupied by another person (other than an accomplice) at any time during the offense. The behavior that seems intended to capture is a home invasion. But the terms “building,” “dwelling,” and “enters a building without consent” are astonishingly broadly defined. For example, one Minnesota case holds that a person can be convicted of burglary for entering into a home he ownsLopez, which holds that a motel room is a “building” under the burglary statute, takes it yet another step further and pushes the breadth of the crime to the breaking point.

The Lopez court purports to apply the plain meaning of the definition of “building,” which, under the statute, is “a structure suitable for affording shelter for human beings including any appurtenant or connected structure.” The court acknowledges that a motel room is “a subunit of a larger building.” It also rejected the government’s contention that previous burglary cases had already answered this question. But it held that, because “[a] motel room is intentionally constructed from the component parts of walls, a ceiling, and a door, for the express purpose of affording shelter for guests,” and “precisely because a motel room is so constructed that a person rents such a room,” it is a building. Judge Stauber dissented, stating that he would have concluded, based on the commonly-understood meaning of “building,” a prior version of the burglary statute, and other statutes that define “building,” that a motel room was not intended to be considered a separate “building.”

Judge Stauber’s position is the better one here. His proposed holding would rely on an almost inarguably common-sense understanding of the word “building,” No one would ever say that they entered a “building” when moving from a motel hallway into a motel room, and it’s telling that the majority’s holding relies on boiling down dictionary definitions and side-stepping the prior statute before finding that the statute “unambiguously” includes motel rooms. (It seems clear that, had the majority been forced to find that the definition was ambiguous, it would have had a very hard time reaching the same result.)

Though its logic doesn’t hold together, the majority makes one good point: under the dissent’s proposed rule, “unconsented-to entry into an apartment unit by an occupant of another unit in the same complex would not be a burglary; an identical entry into the unit by a person who does not dwell in another unit within the same complex would be a burglary. That makes no sense.” That may be true. But it doesn’t make much sense that the Legislature would have intended to include a motel room within the word “building,” either, and as the court itself notes, “all reasonable doubt concerning legislative intent should be resolved in favor of the defendant.”

During a time in which there is rightful concern about the power wielded by prosecutors, the day has come for the crime of burglary to be narrowed.

By Firm Administrator

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