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Lawn Mowers and Motor Vehicles

November 23, 2009

Sometimes the Georgia Supreme Court is called on to decide interesting or unusual questions.  Although this is not a civil case, and thus not normally covered by this blog, the AJC reports about the outcome of Harris v. The State, a criminal case that turned on the issue of whether a riding lawnmower was a “motor vehicle” for purposes of the “theft of a motor vehicle” statute.

In 2006, Harris and two others stole a riding lawnmower from a Home Depot, and sold it in Georgia.  Harris was a repeat offender, and was sentenced to 10 years in prison under the state’s motor vehicle theft law.  The Court of Appeals (Mikell, Smith, and Adams) unanimously found the riding lawnmower was a “self-propelled vehicle within the definition of OCGA § 40-1-1(33)” and upheld the conviction.

In a 4-3 decision, the Supreme Court overturned the Court of Appeals, finding the riding lawnmower was not a motor vehicle.  Justice Nahmias, writing for the majority, found that if the term “motor vehicle” as it is commonly understood were extended to every vehicle with a motor, it could include “children’s battery-powered mini-cars to mopeds, automobiles, trucks, trains, ships, and space shuttles.”  Nahmias looked to the dictionary definition of “motor vehicle,” which involves transportation on roads.  While a riding lawnmower could transport people or property on roads, Nahamias wrote that it is not what it is designed for or how it is normally used, “there being little grass to mow on streets, and there being faster and less noisy ways of moving people and property around.”  Nahmias also found this confirmed by the statutory scheme, which focuses on transportation on a highway, not just a vehicle with a motor.  The majority thus overturned the conviction, and remanded the case to the trial court.

The dissent, written by Justice Melton, and joined by Justices Thompson and Hines, focuses on the “theft” of the vehicle as opposed to its use.  The dissenters found the majority’s interpretation runs counter to the statute, because the majority should have looked at the criminal code, not the motor vehicle code, for the proper definition.

The case could have wide ramifications.  Several years ago the Supreme Court found a golf cart was a motor vehicle, necessitating changes in the law for Peachtree City’s golf cart paths.

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