Georgia Supreme Court Blog

December 17, 2009

Stealing Lawn Mower not Motor Vehicle Theft, Ga. Supreme Court Holds

Filed under: criminal law, theft — Tags: , , — bce30064 @ 3:00 am


The Supreme Court of Georgia reversed the conviction of a man sentenced to 10 years in prison for stealing a lawn mower with a 4-3 opinion released November 23, 2009.

At issue in this Whitfield County case is whether a riding lawn mower is considered a “motor vehicle” under the state’s motor vehicle theft law. The Georgia Court of Appeals concluded it was. But in a decision written by Justice David Nahmias, the high court ruled that the Court of Appeals was wrong, and sent the case back for resentencing.

“The General Assembly may of course expressly define ‘motor vehicle’ more broadly, but we are not at liberty to do so,” the majority opinion says. “For these reasons, we hold that a riding lawn mower is not a ‘motor vehicle’ as that term is used in the motor vehicle theft statute.” The term motor vehicle “is commonly understood to mean a self-propelled vehicle with wheels that is designed to be used…to transport people or property on roads,” the majority opinion states. And that is how a number of Georgia statutes define the term. “To be sure, a riding lawn mower is capable of transporting people or property and of driving on the street for short stretches, but that is not what the machine is designed for or how it is normally used…,” the opinion says. Rather, the purpose of a riding lawn mower is to cut grass.

A Toro Tiding Lawn Mower



The case stems from the 2006 arrest of Franklin Lloyd Harris, who was charged with stealing a Toro riding lawn mower from the Home Depot Store in Dalton. According to evidence at trial, he and two others pulled his father’s red Ford Aerostar van to the front of the store, loaded the lawn mower into the back and drove away. Harris went to trial on two charges: a felony count of motor vehicle theft, based on the fact that the object was a riding lawn mower, and a felony count of theft by taking, because the lawn mower was worth more than $500. During the trial, Harris’ public defender moved to have the first count thrown out on the ground that stealing a lawn mower is not considered motor vehicle theft under state law, and Harris should not be punished as if he’d stolen a car. The trial court denied his motion, a jury found Harris guilty, and because he was a repeat offender, he was sentenced under the motor vehicle theft law to 10 years in prison. On appeal, the Georgia Court of Appeals upheld the conviction and sentence, ruling that a riding lawn mower is a “motor vehicle” under state law.

“We hold that the Court of Appeals did err and that appellant’s conviction for theft of a motor vehicle should be reversed and the case remanded for resentencing,” the Georgia Supreme Court majority opinion says. However, although Harris’s conviction for motor vehicle theft must be reversed, he was also convicted of theft by taking, and on remand, he should be sentenced for that, the opinion states. “Because the value of the stolen lawnmower exceeded $500, Harris still will face a sentence of up to 10 years, and so he may receive the same sentence, particularly given his recidivist status, but we leave that decision to the trial court on remand.”

The majority is joined by Chief Justice Carol Hunstein, Presiding Justice George Carley and Justice Robert Benham.

In a dissent, Justice Harold Melton writes that “the legislature has specifically defined the term ‘motor vehicle’ broadly enough to encompass a riding lawn mower. The majority, however, erroneously relies on inapplicable ‘motor vehicle’ definitions that apply to the use of a vehicle on the roads…, as opposed to the theft of a vehicle, in order to reach its intended conclusion that a riding lawn mower is not a ‘motor vehicle’ for the purposes of sentencing for theft.” The dissent points out that in the state’s “chop shop” statute, the term motor vehicle includes any devices “which are self-propelled but which are not designed for use upon a highway, including, but not limited to, farm machinery and construction equipment.” “This definition of ‘motor vehicle’ is obviously broad enough to encompass a riding lawnmower,” the dissent says. “Thus, if a riding lawn mower were stolen and taken to a ‘chop shop,’ it would be a ‘motor vehicle’ for purposes of its theft and storage or dismantling at a chop shop. Under the majority’s analysis, however, a riding lawnmower would not be a ‘motor vehicle’ if simply stolen, but would magically transform into a ‘motor vehicle’ once taken to a chop shop for dismantling or sale.” Instead of discerning the legislature’s intent, “the majority has interpreted the statute in a manner that creates conflict and leads to an absurd result,” the dissent says. “As such, the majority’s interpretation cannot stand.” The dissent is joined by Justices Hugh Thompson and P. Harris Hines.

Attorney for Appellant (Harris): Michael McCarthy
Attorneys for Appellee (State): Kermit McManus, District Attorney, John Helton, Asst. D.A.
Summary by Georgia Supreme Court Public Information Office

Download Full Text of Court Opinion, Harris v. The State (S09G0870)

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