Morissette v. United States
342 U.S. 246 (1952)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Morissette v. United States, 342 U.S. 246 (1952)

Morissette v. United States

No. 12

Argued October 9-10, 1951

Decided January 7, 1952

342 U.S. 246


1. A criminal intent is an essential element of an offense under 18 U.S.C. § 641, which provides that "whoever embezzles, steals, purloins, or knowingly converts" property of the United States is punishable by fine and imprisonment. Pp. 342 U. S. 247-273.

(a) Mere omission from § 641 of any mention of intent is not to be construed as eliminating that element from the crimes defined. United States v. Behrman, 258 U. S. 280, and United States v. Balint, 258 U. S. 250, distinguished. Pp. 342 U. S. 250-263.

(b) The history and purposes of § 641 afford no ground for inferring any affirmative instruction from Congress to eliminate intent from the offense of "knowingly converting" or stealing government property. Pp. 342 U. S. 263-273.

2. Where intent of the accused is an ingredient of the crime charged, its existence is a question of fact which must be submitted to the jury for determination in the light of all relevant evidence, and the trial court may not withdraw or prejudge the issue by instructing the jury that the law raises a presumption of intent from a single act. Pp. 342 U. S. 273-276.

187 F. 2d 427, reversed.

Petitioner was convicted of a violation of 18 U.S.C. § 641. The Court of Appeals affirmed. 187 F. 2d 427. This Court granted certiorari. 341 U.S. 925. Reversed, p. 342 U. S. 276.

Page 342 U. S. 247

Primary Holding
Strict liability is not appropriate for a crime that is mala in se, since these crimes all include mental states as necessary elements.
Morisette was deer hunting in an area marked as a bombing range when he found some spent military shell casings. He believed that they were abandoned because they had been dumped in disorderly piles, so he took three tons of them to a farm and flattened them with a tractor. Morisette later sold them in a nearby town as scrap for $84. He was charged with knowing conversion of government property, a federal crime. Courts had established that the government has the power to regulate its property, and people who violate that right may be held strictly liable. The trial court thus denied Morisette the opportunity to argue that he did not have the intent to unlawfully convert the scrap, which he had genuinely believed was abandoned. The judge ruled that the jury could find culpability without a mental state element.



  • Robert Houghwout Jackson (Author)
  • Frederick Moore Vinson
  • Hugo Lafayette Black
  • Stanley Forman Reed
  • Felix Frankfurter
  • Harold Hitz Burton
  • Tom C. Clark

Mental state elements always were inherent components of crimes under the common-law system, which was comprised entirely of mala in se crimes. An intentional act that resulted in a forbidden outcome was not criminalized by itself or used to presume a mental state element. When legislatures have integrated common-law crimes into statutes but failed to include a mental state element, it has been presumed and read into the statute by courts. Conversion was a crime under the common law, and it always contained a mental state element, so that element's absence from a statute defining the same crime does not mean that the prosecution no longer needs to prove it. However, strict liability may be appropriate for crimes that are mala prohibita, which means that they originate from regulatory statutes rather than the common law.


  • William Orville Douglas (Author)


  • Sherman Minton (Author)

Case Commentary

By converting a traditional common-law crime into a statutory crime, the legislature cannot impose strict liability for conduct that would have required a mental state to be punishable.

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