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Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

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Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Baby You Can Drive My Car: Court Of Appeals Of Minnesota Uses Rule Of Lenity To Reverse Tracking Device Conviction

Pursuant to the rule of lenity, courts must construe ambiguous criminal statutes in favor of criminal defendants because the government drafts criminal statutes and is responsible for any terms that are equally susceptible to multiple definitions. See, e.g., Fowler v. United States, 131 S.Ct. 2045, 2055 (2011). Courts rarely invoke the rule of lenity, which is why at least one criminal law professor has mused, Why do I waste my time teaching the so-called "Rule of Lenity"?

That said, the rule does rear its head in the appropriate case, including United States v. Millis, 621 F.3d 914 (9th Cir. 2010), which I give to my students through the following hypothetical:

Daniel Millis was convicted under 50 C.F.R. Section 27.94 for placing full, gallon-sized plastic bottles of water on trails in the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge to help alleviate exposure deaths among undocumented immigrants crossing into the United States. That section criminalizes "[t]he littering, disposing, or dumping in any manner of garbage…on any national wildlife refuge….” There is no legislative history for the section. Millis challenges his conviction on grounds of lenity. How should the court rule? See United States v. Millis, 621 F.3d 914 (9th Cir. 2010).

What the court did rule was that full bottles of water could be considered "garbage" under one definition (discarded inorganic material -- the bottles) but could not be considered "garbage" under another definition (useless or unpleasant material). Accordingly, the Ninth Circuit found that the rule of lenity applied and that Millis' conviction had to be reversed.

Now, based upon the opinion of the Court of Appeals of Minnesota in State v. Hormann, 805 N.W.2d 883 (Minn.App. 2011), I have another good lenity case to teach to students.

I learned about the Hormann case after my colleague Aparna Polavarapu sent me a link to the article, A Spy-Gear Arms Race Transforms Modern Divorce. That article mentions a Minnesota man being convicted of placing a tracking device on his wife's vehicle before his conviction was reversed by an appellate court. That man was Danny Hormann, and he was initially convicted of violating Minn.Stat. § 626A.35, subd. 1, which states that "[e]xcept as provided in this section, no person may install or use a pen register, trap and trace device, or mobile tracking device without first obtaining a court order under section 626A.37." Meanwhile, there is an exception to this statute "where the consent of the user of that service has been obtained." 

Hormann thereafter appealed, claiming, inter alia, "that the district court erred in denying his motion for acquittal (made at the close of the state's case) because he had an ownership interest in the car sufficient to preclude conviction...." In response, the Court of Appeals of Minnesota found that the exception did not define the term "owner" and that

the term "owner" is ambiguous because, by placing the definite article "the" prior to the term "owner," the statute appears to exclude the possibility that an "object" may have more than one owner and because it does not address what property interest constitutes ownership for the purposes of the statute.

Even still, the court acknowledged that the State had a decent case because (1) the car was solely registered in the wife's name, and (2) the wife drove the car the overwhelming majority of the time. At the same time, the court noted that

(1) Hormann occasionally drove the vehicle, with the State "acknowledg[ing] that it would not prosecute [him] for auto theft were [his wife] to report that the car was stolen because [Hormann] was driving the car without her consent;"

(2) all property acquired during marriage by either party is presumed marital in Minnesota, and Hormann's wife acknowledged that she purchased the car with marital funds; and

(3) there was evidence that the wife signed the title of the car over the Hormann to facilitate a sale, and, even though that transfer was never recorded, "this transfer demonstrate[d] how, in a marriage relationship, incidents of formal ownership of marital property may not accurately reflect who is using a vehicle."

Thus, the Court of Appeals of Minnesota found that "[o]ur construction of 'the owner,' consistent with the rule of lenity, leads us to conclude that the statutory exception applies when the vehicle or object to which the tracking device is attached has multiple owners, one of whom has consented to the tracking device." Consequently, the court reversed Hormann's conviction, concluding that

the statute does not criminalize an owner's attaching such a device to a vehicle in which he has an ownership interest. That would be absurd.

-CM

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