Mark Morris | Motor + vehicle = motor vehicle

Mark Morris
Mark Morris

Appeals court rulings can be mysterious and serpentine.

One court that I cover routinely sends cases back to lower courts with this confounding instruction: “The judgment of the court is reversed and the case is remanded for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.”

(Why not just say the proceedings should be consistent with the opinion?)

But occasionally a court publishes an opinion that sparkles with so much clarity and common sense that even a non-lawyer can get it.

Such was the case earlier this fall when the Western District Missouri Court of Appeals dropped some bad news on Tyrone M. Seals in a Callaway County case.

A Fulton, Mo., officer had spotted Seals driving a white van backward down a street in February 2011. The officer stopped Seals and found that his license had been suspended. Seals responded that he knew it and would have to pay $800 to get his license reinstated.

A judge at a bench trial convicted Seals of operating a motor vehicle while his license was revoked, a misdemeanor, and sentenced him to 40 days in jail.

(Seriously? Locked up for almost six weeks for misdemeanor driving with a revoked license? Slow down, drivers on Interstate 70, because Callaway County appears to be swimming in underused jail space.)

Testing his luck, perhaps, Seals appealed his conviction on a single point, arguing that the state had “failed to prove that the van he was driving constitutes a motor vehicle.”

The state responded, arguing that “a van is by common knowledge a motor vehicle.”

Attacking the case rigorously, the appeals judges looked up the definition of “motor vehicle.” It is “any self-propelled vehicle not operated exclusively upon tracks except motorized bicycles.”

Probing deeper, the judges scrutinized the definition of “vehicle,” which is defined under state law as “any mechanical device on wheels, designed primarily for use, or used on highways, except motorized bicycles, vehicles propelled or drawn by horses or human power, or vehicles used exclusively on rails or tracks, or cotton trailers or motorized wheelchairs operated by handicapped persons.”

Finally, the judges scoured precedent on the issue. Though not extensive, it was persuasive. In 1969, the appeals court had ruled: “It is common knowledge that a pickup truck is a motor vehicle.”

That apparently clinched it.

“(It is) a reasonable inference from the evidence that a van is a motor vehicle,” Judge Gary D. Witt wrote. “The judgment of the trial court is affirmed.”

Nothing mysterious about that.