Breaking or Entering a Motor Vehicle

Under G.S. 14-56, it is a Class I felony to “break[] or enter[] any . . . motor vehicle . . . containing any . . . thing of value” with the intent to commit larceny or any felony. It sounds straightforward enough, but I was recently asked whether breaking into a toolbox affixed behind the cab of a pickup truck violates the statute. That led me to several other interesting issues, and my interlocutor was kind enough to permit me to summarize my research here. (She granted me a waiver of my own policy of not blogging about individual questions.)

Let’s start with some easy scenarios and then move to the tougher ones.

1. Obviously, breaking into the passenger compartment of a car violates the statute.

2. What about breaking into the trunk? This is included, too. The court of appeals considered the scope of the statute in State v. Nealy, 64 N.C. App. 663 (1983). Even the dissenting judge, who took the narrowest view of the statute, opined that it “proscribe[s] the breaking or entering of compartments of a motor vehicle in which property is customarily carried, i.e., the passenger compartment and the trunk area.”

3. How about the engine compartment? No property is usually carried there, so does a person commit breaking or entering a motor vehicle if he pops the hood with the necessary criminal intent? Yes. Although the dissenting judge in Nealy wouldn’t have gone so far, the majority upheld the defendant’s conviction based on reaching in and opening the hood of a vehicle, so the statute covers the engine compartment, too.

4. What if a person crawls under a vehicle and tries to remove a part, like the drive shaft? Now we’ve gone too far, probably. I don’t know of a North Carolina case on point, but in State v. Gore, 456 S.E.2d 419 (S.C. Ct. App. 1995), the court interpreted a similar South Carolina statute as applying only to those who break into the passenger compartment or a separate area such as “the trunk area, the engine compartment, [or] the gas tank,” and rejected the argument that attempting to remove a part from the vehicle’s underside violated the statute. Of course, such conduct is still illegal, it just doesn’t appear to be covered under G.S. 14-56.

5. What about toolboxes attached to trucks? This was the question that started it all. I wasn’t able to find an in-state case on point, but I have little doubt that an attached toolbox counts as part of the motor vehicle to which it is affixed. Functionally, it’s an aftermarket trunk. Cases from Texas confirm this analysis. State v. Ford, 860 S.W.2d 731 (Tex. Ct. App. Beaumont 1993) (breaking into toolbox “bolted and welded to the bed” of a truck constituted burglary of a vehicle under Texas law and was analogous to breaking into a vehicle’s trunk); Hopkins v. State, 864 S.W.2d 119 (Tex Ct. App. 14 Dist. 1993) (holding that “removal of tools from a toolbox attached to the bed of a pickup truck constituted entry into part of the vehicle” and so supported a conviction of burglary of a motor vehicle). As a sidebar, it’s fitting that these cases are from Texas. Over 26% of all vehicles there are pickups, tops in the nation, and the large, customized pickups often found there have been given the sobriquet “Texas Cadillacs.” As a second sidebar, I suppose that the same analysis would apply to an enclosed luggage carriers that is attached to the roof rack of a vehicle, although I couldn’t quickly find any cases on point.

6. What if there’s no toolbox, but a person reaches into the open bed of pickup truck with unlawful intent? Although a closer question, this, too, likely violates the statute. Cases from several jurisdictions — not just Texas! — have agreed on this point. People v. Frey, 467 N.E.2d 302 (Ill. Ct. App. 5 Dist. 1984) (“The bed of a pick-up truck is as much a part thereof as is, for example, the passenger cab or the truck compartment. We conclude that an unauthorized, knowing entry into the bed of a pick-up truck with intent to steal something therefrom is an act properly characterized and chargeable as burglary.”); State v. Cloud, 324 N.W.2d 287 (S.D. 1982) (burglary statute prohibits entry into any “structure” such as a “motor vehicle . . . or any portion thereof,” which includes the “open [bed] of a pickup truck”); People v. Banuelos, 577 P.2d 305 (Colo. Ct. App. 1977) (entering the open bed of a pickup truck constitutes entering a motor vehicle for purposes of the Colorado trespass statute).

Has anyone had other issues come up regarding what counts as part of the “motor vehicle” for purposes of G.S. 14-56? If so, please shoot me an email or post a comment.