Morissette v. United States

United States Supreme Court

342 U.S. 246, 72 S.Ct. 240, 96 L.Ed. 288 (1952)


      In this case the Court holds that the absence of statutory language denoting an intent requirement will not necessarily be construed as eliminating that element.


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


      ... 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. § 641. ... 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.


      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 wrongful or criminal intent. The trial court, however, was unimpressed, and ... 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 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 ... affirmed the conviction because “[a]s 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 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.


      ... 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 and arouse public demand for retribution, the penalty is high and, when a sufficient amount is involved, the infamy is that of a felony, which, says Maitland, is “... as bad a word as you can give to man or thing.” 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.


      ... Congress, therefore, omitted any express prescription of criminal intent from the enactment before us in the light of an unbroken course of judicial decision in all constituent states of the Union holding intent inherent in this class of offense, even when not expressed in a statute. Congressional silence as to mental elements in an act merely adopting into federal statutory law a concept of crime already so well defined in common law and statutory interpretation by the states [does not mean that intent is not required as an element of the crime].


      ... 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 individual 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. ...


      We find no grounds for inferring any affirmative instruction from Congress to eliminate intent from any offense with which this defendant was charged.


      As we read the record, this case was tried on the theory that even if criminal intent were essential its presence (i) should be decided by the court (ii) as a presumption of law, apparently conclusive, (iii) predicated upon the isolated act of taking rather than upon all of the circumstances. In each of these respects we believe the trial court was in error. ...