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Morissette v. United States

United States Supreme Court
342 U.S. 246 (1952)



A scrap metal and junk dealer, 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. Morissette subsequently flattened the casings out and sold them for an $84 profit. Morissette was indicted for violating 18 U.S.C. § 641 which made it a crime to “knowing convert” government property. At trial, 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.

Rule of Law


Holding and Reasoning (Jackson, J.)

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Questions & Answers

Mens Rea in the Statute

The reasoning here talks about how § 641 did not contain a mental element but § 641 certainly did. "[W]hoever *** steals, purloins, or knowingly converts to his use or the use of another . . . ." It seems to me that the mens rea is found in the word "knowing." So how can Congress have been silent as to a mental element in the statute?

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