MORISSETTE v. UNITED STATES
342 U.S. 246 (1952)
MR. JUSTICE JACKSON delivered the opinion of the Court.
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 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 stacked 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.
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, willfully and knowingly steal and convert" property of the United States of the value of $84, in violation of 18 U.S.C. 5641, which provides that "whoever embezzles, steals, purloins, or knowingly converts" government property is punishable by fine
and imprisonment. Morissette was conviction and sentenced to imprisonment for two months or to pay a fine of $200. The Court of Appeals affirmed, one
On his trial, Morissette, as he had at all times told investigating officers, testified that from appearance he believed the casings were cast-off and abandoned, that he did not intend to steal the property, and took it with no wrongful or criminal intent. The trial court, however, was unimpressed, and ruled: ". . . 1 don't think anybody can have the defense they thought the property was abandoned on another man's piece of property." . . . The court refused to submit or to allow counsel to argue to the jury whether Morissette acted with innocent intention.
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. A relation between some mental element and punishment for a harmful act is almost as instinctive as the child's familiar
exculpatory "But I didn't mean to."
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 and took deep and early root in American soil. As the states 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 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 evil purpose or mental culpability. By the use or combination of these various tokens they have sought to protect those who were not blameworthy in mind from conviction of infamous
However, [certain other] offenses belong to a category of another character, with very different antecedents and origins. The crimes there involved depend on no mental element but consist only of forbidden acts or omissions.. . . The industrial revolution multiplied the number of workmen exposed to injury from increasingly powerful and complex mechanisms, driven by freshly discovered sources of
energy, requiring higher precautions by employers. . . . Wide distribution of goods became an instrument of wide distribution of harm when those who dispersed food, drink, drugs, and even securities, did not comply with reasonable standards of quality, integrity,
disclosure and care. Such dangers have engendered increasingly numerous and detailed regulations which heighten the duties of those in control of particular industries, trades, properties or activities that affect public health, safety or welfare.
While many of these duties are sanctioned by a more strict civil liability, lawmakers, whether wisely or not have sought to make such regulations more effective by invoking criminal sanctions to be applied by the
familiar technique of criminal prosecutions and convictions. This has confronted the courts with a multitude of prosecutions, based on statutes or administrative regulations, for what have been aptly called "public welfare offenses." . . . The accused, if he does not will the violations, usually is in a position to prevent it with no more care than society might reasonably exact from one who assumed
his responsibilities. Also, penalties commonly
are relatively small, and conviction does no grave damage to an offender's reputation. Under such considerations, courts have turned to construing statutes and regulations which make no mention of intent as dispensing with it and holding that. the guilty act alone makes out the crime. This has not, however, been without expressions of misgiving.
Stealing, larceny, and its variants and equivalents, were among the earliest offenses known to the law that
existed before legislation; they are invasions of rights of property which stir a sense of insecurity in the whole community . . . State courts of last resort, on whom fall the heaviest burden of interpreting criminal law in this country, have consistently retained the requirement of intent in larceny-type offenses. If any state has deviated, the exception has neither been called to our attention nor disclosed by our research.
The Government asks us by a feat of construction radically to change the weights and balances in the scales of justice. The purpose and obvious effect of doing away with the requirement of a guilty intent is to ease the prosecution's path to conviction, to strip the defendant of such benefit as he derived at common law from innocence of evil purpose, and to circumscribe the freedom heretofore allowed juries. Such a manifest impairment of the immunities of the individuel should not be extended to common law crimes on judicial initiative.
We hold that mere omission from §641 of any mention of intent will not be construed as eliminating that
element from the crimes denounced.
Congress, by the language of this section, has been at pains to incriminate only "knowing" conversions. . . Knowing conversion requires more than knowledge that defendant was taking the property into his possession.
He must have had knowledge of the facts, though not necessarily the law, that made the taking a conversion. In the case before us, whether the mental element that Congress required be spoken of as knowledge or as intent, would not seem to alter its bearing on guilt. For it is not apparent how Morissette could have knowingly or intentionally converted property that he did not know could be converted, as would be the case if it was in fact abandoned or if he truly believed it to be abandoned and unwanted property. . . .
Of course, the jury, considering Morissette's awareness that these casings were on government property, his failure to seek any permission for their removal and his self-interest as a witness, might have disbelieved his profession of innocent intent and concluded that his assertion of a belief that the casings were abandoned was an afterthought. Had the jury convicted on proper instructions it would be the end of the matter. But juries are not bound by what seems inescapable logic to judges. They might have concluded that the heaps of spent casings left in the hinterland to rust away presented an appearance of unwanted and abandoned junk, and that lack of any conscious deprivation of property or intentional injury was
indicated by Morissette's good character, the openness
of the taking, crushing and transporting of the casings, and the candor with which it was all admitted. They
might have refused to brand Morissette as a thief. Had they done so, that too would have been the end of the