This opinion will be unpublished and
may not be cited except as provided by
Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (2000).
IN COURT OF APPEALS
State of Minnesota
Gary Ervin Smith,
Filed September 10, 2002
Kandiyohi County District Court
File No. T9-01-1692
John E. Mack, Mack & Daby, P.A., 26 Main Street, P.O. Box 302, New London, MN 56273 (for appellant)
Mike Hatch, Attorney General, 525 Park Street, Suite 500, St. Paul, MN 55103; and
Boyd A. Beccue, Kandiyohi County Attorney, Deborah Smith, Assistant County Attorney, 316 Southwest Fourth Street, Willmar, MN 56201(for respondent)
Considered and decided by Stoneburner, Presiding Judge, Randall, Judge, and Hudson, Judge.
U N P U B L I S H E D O P I N I O N
Appellant challenges his conviction under Minn. Stat. § 169.82, subd. 3(b) (2000). Appellant contends that the operative portion of the statute does not apply to the absent owner of a non-complying trailer. We reverse.
On November 14, 2000, appellant gave his nephew, Eric Smith, permission to borrow his trailer to transport a snowblower. Appellant's trailer was purchased at a farm auction and heavily modified by him. The trailer is equipped with a hitch and safety chains measuring four feet in length. The trailer has two axles and measures 22 feet 8 inches long by 8 feet 9 inches wide.
On November 16, 2000, appellant's nephew borrowed appellant's trailer and secured it to his pickup truck using the supplied hitch and safety chains. While appellant's nephew was traveling down the highway at approximately 45 miles per hour, appellant's trailer became unhooked from the pickup truck and veered into oncoming traffic, striking a vehicle and causing injuries to the driver and her child.
Following the collision, an inspector from the Minnesota State Patrol determined that the safety chains affixed to the trailer were too long to provide proper control once the trailer became unhitched. The investigator determined that the excess safety chain allowed the trailer to sway and jerk and this stress caused the eyebolt hooks on the bumper of the pickup truck to bend and give way.
As a result of the investigator's report appellant was charged with one count of Trailer Equipment-Hitch, Chain, Cable under Minn. Stat. § 169.82, subd. 3(b) (2000), and one count of Unregistered Vehicles, Use, under Minn. Stat. § 168.26, subd. 1 (2000). Following a trial by stipulated facts, appellant was convicted of count one, and count two was dismissed. This appeal followed.
D E C I S I O N
This is an appeal from the district court's finding that appellant violated Minn. Stat. § 169.82, subd. 3(b) (2000). The sole issue is whether the operative portion of the statute applies to the absent owner of a non-complying trailer. Because a strict reading of the statute limits its application to operators of trailers, we reverse.
Appellant was convicted of violating the last two sentences of Minn. Stat. § 169.82, subd. 3(b), which provides:
In towing, the chains or cables must be attached to the vehicles near the points of bumper attachments to the chassis of each vehicle, and must be of sufficient strength to control the trailer in the event of failure of the towing device. The length of chain or cable must be no more than necessary to permit free turning of the vehicle.
The trial court held:
The purpose of this traffic regulation is to protect the safety of persons and property that come in contact with the trailer that is being towed. The safety chains are to "control the trailer in even of failure of the towing device." This purpose protects not only the owner who control and maintains the trailer, but any person who uses the trailer and those drivers and pedestrians who are present on the public roadway with trailers as it is towed.
To effectuate this statute's purpose, it is logical to enforce the statute broadly against any persons who have the ability to effect how trailers are constructed or maintained in the State of Minnesota.
Appellant argues that a narrow interpretation of the applicable portion of Minn. Stat. § 169.82, subd. 3(b), allows the statute's application only to the operator of a trailer and not its owner. We agree.
Whether a statute has been properly construed is a question of law subject to de novo review. State v. Murphy, 545 N.W.2d 909, 914 (Minn. 1996). If statutory language is plain and unambiguous, this court only examines the plain meaning of the statutory language. In re the Welfare of J.R.Z., 648 N.W.2d 241, 247 (Minn. App. 2002). However, penal statutes must be construed strictly and any reasonable doubt must be interpreted in favor of the defendant. State v. Layman, 376 N.W.2d 298, 300 (Minn. App. 1985), review denied (Minn. Jan. 17, 1986).
Construing penal statutes strictly as we must, it appears that the portion of Minn. Stat. § 169.82, subd. 3(b), under which appellant was charged governs the conduct of the operator of the trailer rather than an absent owner. Here, appellant, as owner of the trailer, supplied a trailer to the operator equipped with "safety chains or cables permanently attached to the trailer." See Minn. Stat. §169.82, subd. 3(b). These safety chains were also "of sufficient strength to control the trailer in the event of failure of the towing device." Id. The safety chain in this case did not break. Rather, the chains' eye-bolt connections broke away from the towing vehicle because of the trailer's erratic swaying. The only defect with the trailer as it was being operated on November 16, 2000, was that the safety chains were affixed to the trailer in such a fashion that the length was "more than necessary to permit free turning of the vehicle." Id. This defect in the positioning of the safety chains was not one that appellant, as a non-present owner, could correct. In loaning his trailer to another, appellant had no control over what type of vehicle was used to pull it, or how the length of safety chain would be affixed between the bumper hitch and the trailer. By definition, the decision of how to affix the safety chain when pulling a trailer is within the control of the vehicle driver, not the absentee owner.
We therefore conclude that the district court erred in finding defendant guilty under Minn. Stat. § 169.82, subd. 3 (b). Thus, we reverse the decision of the district court.
 We note that this decision does not speak to any issue regarding the negligence or civil liability of an owner or operator of a trailer not complying with Minn. Stat. § 169.82 subd. 3(b). That is a different standard and not before us. We address only the criminal charge.