Morissette v. United States

Facts

Defendant entered an air force bombing range originally to hunt but later to retrieve bomb castings which he would later use as scrap for sale.  At various places within the range there were signs warning passers to keep out of the range.  Defendant was convicted at trial of “knowingly converting government property.”

History

At trial defendant was convicted and defended on the grounds that he believed the castings were abandoned property.  It was the instruction of the trial judge that the prosecution need only prove that defendant intended to take the property.  Court of appeals affirmed conviction.

Issue

Whether it was required that defendant had knowledge of that the converted property was abandoned.

Holding/Rule

Yes, reversed.  Defendant must have knowledge that the property was abandoned in order for the prosecution to convict.   He, therefore, must have had mens rea or guilty mind associated with the taking of the property.

Analysis

Evidence that the defendant was unaware that the property belonged to the government should be admissible because it is relevant and essential to the element of mens rea intent which is an element of conviction in this case.  Congress held intent as an inherent element of the statute said to be in violation.  Where congress omits any mentioning of specific intent, specific intent is not to be eliminated as an element.  Crimes in violation of plain regulatory law (as compared to common law crimes, which are more serious), like conversion, require mens rea as to the commission of the crime itself.  That is, the crime defendant must have known he was violating the law.  These regulatory laws only relate to public welfare.  These laws do not in and of themselves involve harm to the state, personal property, or a particular victim.

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