342 U.S. 246 (1952), 12, Morissette v. United States

Docket Nº:No. 12
Citation:342 U.S. 246, 72 S.Ct. 240, 96 L.Ed. 288
Party Name:Morissette v. United States
Case Date:January 07, 1952
Court:United States Supreme Court

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342 U.S. 246 (1952)

72 S.Ct. 240, 96 L.Ed. 288



United States

No. 12

United States Supreme Court

Jan. 7, 1952

Argued October 9-10, 1951




1. A criminal intent is an essential element of an offense under 18 U.S.C. § 641, which provides that "whoever embezzles, steals, purloins, or knowingly converts" property of the United States is punishable by fine and imprisonment. Pp. 247-273.

(a) Mere omission fro § 641 of any mention of intent is not to be construed as eliminating that element from the crimes defined. United States v. Behrman, 258 U.S. 280, and United States v. Balint, 258 U.S. 250, distinguished. Pp. 250-263.

(b) The history and purposes of § 641 afford no ground for inferring any affirmative instruction from Congress to eliminate intent from the offense of "knowingly converting" or stealing government property. Pp. 263-273.

2. Where intent of the accused is an ingredient of the crime charged, its existence is a question of fact which must be submitted to the jury for determination in the light of all relevant evidence, and the trial court may not withdraw or prejudge the issue by instructing the jury that the law raises a presumption of intent from a single act. Pp. 273-276.

187 F.2d 427, reversed.

Petitioner was convicted of a violation of 18 U.S.C. § 641. The Court of Appeals affirmed. 187 F.2d 427. This Court granted certiorari. 341 U.S. 925. Reversed, p. 276.

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JACKSON, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE JACKSON delivered the opinion of the Court.

This would have remained a profoundly insignificant case to all except its immediate parties had it not been so tried and submitted to the jury as to raise questions both fundamental and far-reaching in federal criminal law, for which reason we granted certiorari.1

On a large tract of uninhabited and untilled land in a wooded and sparsely populated area of Michigan, the Government established a practice bombing range over which the Air Force dropped simulated bombs at ground targets. These bombs consisted of a metal cylinder about [72 S.Ct. 242] forty inches long and eight inches across, filled with sand and enough black powder to cause a smoke puff by which the strike could be located. At various places about the range, signs read "Danger -- Keep Out -- Bombing Range." Nevertheless, the range was known as good deer country, and was extensively hunted.

Spent bomb casings were cleared from the targets and thrown into piles "so that they will be out of the way." They were not sacked or piled in any order, but were dumped in heaps, some of which had been accumulating for four years or upwards, were exposed to the weather and rusting away.

Morissette, in December of 1948, went hunting in this area but did not get a deer. He thought to meet expenses of the trip by salvaging some of these casings. He loaded three tons of them on his truck and took them to a nearby farm, where they were flattened by driving a tractor over them. After expending this labor and trucking them to market in Flint, he realized $84.

Morissette, by occupation, is a fruit stand operator in summer and a trucker and scrap iron collector in winter. An honorably discharged veteran of World War II,

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he enjoys a good name among his neighbors and has had no blemish on his record more disreputable than a conviction for reckless driving.

The loading, crushing and transporting of these casings were all in broad daylight, in full view of passers-by, without the slightest effort at concealment. When an investigation was started, Morissette voluntarily, promptly and candidly told the whole story to the authorities, saying that he had no intention of stealing. but thought the property was abandoned, unwanted and considered of no value to the Government. He was indicted, however, on the charge that he "did unlawfully, wilfully and knowingly steal and convert" property of the United States of the value of $84, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 641, which provides that "whoever embezzles, steals, purloins, or knowingly converts" government property is punishable by fine and imprisonment.2 Morissette was convicted and sentenced to imprisonment for two months or to pay a fine of $200. The Court of Appeals affirmed, one judge dissenting.3

On his trial, Morissette, as he had at all times told investigating officers, testified that, from appearances, he believed the casings were cast-off and abandoned, that he did not intend to steal the property, and took it with no

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wrongful or criminal intent. The trial court, however, was unimpressed, and ruled:

[H]e took it because he thought it was abandoned and he knew he was on government property. . . . That is no defense. . . . I don't think anybody can have the defense they thought the property was abandoned on another man's piece of property.

The court stated: "I will not permit you to show this man thought it was abandoned. . . . I hold in this case that there is no question of abandoned property." The court refused to submit or to allow counsel to argue to the jury whether Morissette acted with innocent intention. It charged:

And I instruct you that if you believe the testimony of the government in this case, he [72 S.Ct. 243] intended to take it. . . . He had no right to take this property. . . . [A]nd it is no defense to claim that it was abandoned because it was on private property. . . . And I instruct you to this effect: that if this young man took this property (and he says he did), without any permission (he says he did), that was on the property of the United States Government (he says it was), that it was of the value of one cent or more (and evidently it was), that he is guilty of the offense charged here. If you believe the government, he is guilty. . . . The question on intent is whether or not he intended to take the property. He says he did. Therefore, if you believe either side, he is guilty.

Petitioner's counsel contended, "But the taking must have been with a felonious intent." The court ruled, however: "That is presumed by his own act."

The Court of Appeals suggested that "greater restraint in expression should have been exercised," but affirmed the conviction because, "As we have interpreted the statute, appellant was guilty of its violation beyond a shadow of doubt, as evidenced even by his own admissions." Its construction of the statute is that it creates several separate and distinct offenses, one being knowing

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conversion of government property. The court ruled that this particular offense requires no element of criminal intent. This conclusion was thought to be required by the failure of Congress to express such a requisite and this Court's decisions in United States v. Behrman, 258 U.S. 280, and United States v. Balint, 258 U.S. 250.


In those cases, this Court did construe mere omission from a criminal enactment of any mention of criminal intent as dispensing with it. If they be deemed precedents for principles of construction generally applicable to federal penal statutes, they authorize this conviction. Indeed, such adoption of the literal reasoning announced in those cases would do this and more -- it would sweep out of all federal crimes, except when expressly preserved, the ancient requirement of a culpable state of mind. We think a resume of their historical background is convincing that an effect has been ascribed to them more comprehensive than was contemplated and one inconsistent with our philosophy of criminal law.

The contention that an injury can amount to a crime only when inflicted by intention is no provincial or transient notion. It is as universal and persistent in mature systems of law as belief in freedom of the human will and a consequent ability and duty of the normal individual to choose between good and evil.4 A relation between some mental element and punishment for a

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harmful act is almost as instinctive as the child's familiar exculpatory "But I didn't mean to," and has afforded the rational basis for a tardy and unfinished substitution of deterrence and reformation in place of retaliation and vengeance as the motivation for public prosecution.5 Unqualified acceptance of this doctrine by English common [72 S.Ct. 244] law in the Eighteenth Century was indicated by Blackstone's sweeping statement that to constitute any crime there must first be a "vicious will."6 Common law commentators of the Nineteenth Century early pronounced the same principle,7 although a few exceptions not relevant to our present problem came to be recognized.8

Crime, as a compound concept, generally constituted only from concurrence of an evil-meaning mind with an evil-doing hand, was congenial to an intense individualism

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and took deep and early root in American soil.9 As the state codified the common law of crimes, even if their enactments were silent on the subject, their courts assumed that the omission did not signify disapproval of the principle, but merely recognized that intent was so inherent in the idea of the offense that it required no statutory affirmation. Courts, with little hesitation or division, found an implication of the requirement as to offenses that were taken over from the common law.10 The unanimity with which they have adhered to the central thought that wrongdoing must be conscious to be criminal is emphasized by the variety, disparity and confusion of their definitions of the requisite but elusive mental element. However, courts of various jurisdictions, and for the purposes of different offenses, have devised working formulae, if not scientific ones, for the instruction of juries around such terms as "felonious intent," "criminal intent," "malice aforethought," "guilty knowledge," "fraudulent intent," "willfulness," "scienter," to denote guilty knowledge, or "mens rea," to signify an...

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