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Morissette v. United States

    Brief Fact Summary.

    Morissette (defendant), entered an Air Force bombing range and took several spent bomb casings that had been lying around for years exposed to the weather and rusting and sold them.Morissette was indicted for violating 18 U.S.C. § 641 which made it a crime to “knowingly convert” government property.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law.

    All crimes require the element of mens rea and any similar strict liability statute will not be construed as eliminating the mens rea element.

    Facts.

    Morissette (defendant), entered an Air Force bombing range and took several spent bomb casings that had been lying around for years exposed to the weather and rusting and sold them.Morissette was indicted for violating 18 U.S.C. § 641 which made it a crime to “knowingly convert” government property.Morissette admitted he knew he was taking Air Force property but honestly believed the government had abandoned the casings. The trial judge rejected Morissette’s defense and instructed the jury that “[t]he question on intent is whether or not he intended to take the property.” Morissette was convicted and he appealed. The court of appeals affirmed and made the assumption that Congress meant for the term “knowingly convert” to mean simply an intentional exercise of dominion over property not belonging to the individual. The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari to review.

    Issue.

    Whether the trial judge wrongly instructed the jury that it was not allowed to consider Morissette’s honest belief that he thought the casings were abandoned as a defense.

    Held.

    Strict liability legislation does not specify intent as a required element. Section 641 at issue here is such a statute. However, stealing, larceny, and its variants were among the earliest offenses known to the law that existed prior to enactment of the legislation and state courts have consistently required intent in larceny-type offenses. Congressional silence as to the mental element in § 641 will not be construed as eliminating that element from the crimes denounced. Here, the trial judge wrongly instructed the jury that it was not allowed to consider Morissette’s honest belief that he thought the casings were abandoned as a defense. The judgment of conviction is reversed.

    Discussion.

    The relationship between an intrinsically harmful act and some mental element has given way to a legislative scheme creating absolute, or strict, liability to cover many public welfare offenses. Public welfare laws require a person to exercise care, or not act, when a specific duty is imposed. Many violations of these laws result in no direct or immediate injury to person or property, but merely create the danger or probability of it which the law seeks to minimize. As a result, regardless of the intent of the violator, the injury and consequences are the same. Even if a violator “did not mean to” violate the law, he can be found guilty.


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