Brief Fact Summary.
Wulff (Defendant) was indicted for selling migratory bird parts in violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Defendant moved to dismiss the charge, arguing that the statute violated his due process rights because it did not require the government prove criminal intent.
Synopsis of Rule of Law.
A felony offense that does not require the government to prove some level of criminal intent violates a defendant’s due process rights.
The Migratory Bird Treaty Act made it a felony to sell any migratory bird. Defendant sold a federal agent a necklace made of a red-tailed hawk and great-horned owl talons. Both birds were protected under the Act and Defendant was indicted. Defendant moved to dismiss the charge on the basis that the Act violated his due process rights because it imposes a felony conviction without requiring criminal knowledge or intent. The federal district court granted the motion and the Government appealed.
Must a felony offense require the government to prove criminal intent?
(Milburn, J.) Yes. A felony offense that does not require the government to prove some level of criminal intent violates a defendant’s due process rights. Offenses may eliminate an element of criminal intent without violating the due process clause only when the penalty is relatively small and a conviction would not irreparably damage the defendant’s reputation. Here, the maximum penalty is two years in prison or two thousand dollar fine, or both. This is not a small penalty. Also, a felony conviction irreparably damages one’s reputation and costs him civil rights. Affirmed.
Therefore, if Congress attempted to define a malum prohibitum offense that placed an onerous stigma on an offender's reputation and that carried a severe penalty, the Constitution would be offended.View Full Point of Law
The court in Wulff notes that the Constitution does not allow a person acting with a completely innocent state of mind to be subjected to severe penalty and suffer serious damage to his reputation. For these repercussions, Congress must require the government to prove the defendant acted with some degree of scienter.