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U.S. Supreme Court
MORISSETTE v. UNITED STATES, 342 U.S. 246 (1952)

  1. It is suggested, however, that the history and purposes of 641 imply something more affirmative as to elimination of intent from at least one of the offenses charged under it in this case. The argument does not contest [342 U.S. 246, 264] that criminal intent is retained in the offenses of embezzlement, stealing and purloining, as incorporated into this section. But it is urged that Congress joined with those, as a new, separate and distinct offense, knowingly to convert government property, under circumstances which imply that it is an offense in which the mental element of intent is not necessary.

    Congress has been alert to what often is a decisive function of some mental element in crime. It has seen fit to prescribe that an evil state of mind, described variously in one or more such terms as "intentional," "wilful," "knowing," "fraudulent" or "malicious," will make criminal an otherwise indifferent act,[fn23] or increase the degree of the offense or its punishment.[fn24] Also, it has [342 U.S. 246, 265] at times required a specific intent or purpose which will require some specialized knowledge or design for some evil beyond the common-law intent to do injury.[fn25] The law under some circumstances recognizes good faith or blameless intent as a defense, partial defense, or as an element to be considered in mitigation of punishment.[fn26] And treason - the one crime deemed grave enough for definition in our Constitution itself - requires not only the duly witnessed overt act of aid and comfort to the enemy but also the mental element of disloyalty or adherence to the enemy.[fn27] In view of the care that has been bestowed upon the subject, it is significant that we have not found, nor has our attention been directed to, any instance in which Congress has expressly eliminated the mental element from a crime taken over from the common law.

    The section with which we are here concerned was enacted in 1948, as a consolidation of four former sections of Title 18, as adopted in 1940, which in turn were derived from two sections of the Revised Statutes. The pertinent legislative and judicial history of these antecedents, [342 U.S. 246, 266] as well as of 641, is footnoted.[fn28] We find no other purpose in the 1948 re-enactment than to collect from scattered sources crimes so kindred as to belong in [342 U.S. 246, 267] one category. Not one of these had been interpreted to be a crime without intention and no purpose to differentiate between them in the matter of intent is disclosed. [342 U.S. 246, 268] No inference that some were and some were not crimes of intention can be drawn from any difference in classification or punishment. Not one fits the congressional classification of the petty offense; each is, at its least, a misdemeanor, and if the amount involved is one hundred [342 U.S. 246, 269] or more dollars each is a felony.[fn29] If one crime without intent has been smuggled into a section whose dominant offenses do require intent, it was put in ill-fitting and compromising company. The Government apparently did not believe that conversion stood so alone when it [342 U.S. 246, 270] drew this one-count indictment to charge that Morissette "did unlawfully, wilfully and knowingly steal and convert to his own use."[fn30]

    Congress, by the language of this section, has been at pains to incriminate only "knowing" conversions. But, at common law, there are unwitting acts which constitute conversions. In the civil tort, except for recovery of exemplary damages, the defendant's knowledge, intent, motive, mistake, and good faith are generally irrelevant.[fn31] If one takes property which turns out to belong to another, his innocent intent will not shield him from making restitution or indemnity, for his well-meaning may not be allowed to deprive another of his own.

    Had the statute applied to conversions without qualification, it would have made crimes of all unwitting, inadvertent and unintended conversions. Knowledge, of course, is not identical with intent and may not have been the most apt words of limitation. But knowing conversion [342 U.S. 246, 271] requires more than knowledge that defendant was taking the property into his possession. He must have had knowledge of the facts, though not necessarily the law, that made the taking a conversion. In the case before us, whether the mental element that Congress required be spoken of as knowledge or as intent, would not seem to alter its bearing on guilt. For it is not apparent how Morissette could have knowingly or intentionally converted property that he did not know could be converted, as would be the case if it was in fact abandoned or if he truly believed it to be abandoned and unwanted property.

    It is said, and at first blush the claim has plausibility, that, if we construe the statute to require a mental element as part of criminal conversion, it becomes a meaningless duplication of the offense of stealing, and that conversion can be given meaning only by interpreting it to disregard intention. But here again a broader view of the evolution of these crimes throws a different light on the legislation.

    It is not surprising if there is considerable overlapping in the embezzlement, stealing, purloining and knowing conversion grouped in this statute. What has concerned codifiers of the larceny-type offense is that gaps or crevices have separated particular crimes of this general class and guilty men have escaped through the breaches. The books contain a surfeit of cases drawing fine distinctions between slightly different circumstances under which one may obtain wrongful advantages from another's property. The codifiers wanted to reach all such instances. Probably every stealing is a conversion, but certainly not every knowing conversion is a stealing. "To steal means to take away from one in lawful possession without right with the intention to keep wrongfully." (Italics added.) Irving Trust Co. v. Leff, 253 N. Y. 359, 364, 171 N. E. 569, 571. Conversion, however, may be consummated without [342 U.S. 246, 272] any intent to keep and without any wrongful taking, where the initial possession by the converter was entirely lawful. Conversion may include misuse or abuse of property. It may reach use in an unauthorized manner or to an unauthorized extent of property placed in one's custody for limited use. Money rightfully taken into one's custody may be converted without any intent to keep or embezzle it merely by commingling it with the custodian's own, if he was under a duty to keep it separate and intact. It is not difficult to think of intentional and knowing abuses and unauthorized uses of government property that might be knowing conversions but which could not be reached as embezzlement, stealing or purloining. Knowing conversion adds significantly to the range of protection of government property without interpreting it to punish unwitting conversions.

    The purpose which we here attribute to Congress parallels that of codifiers of common law in England[fn32] and in the States[fn33] and demonstrates that the serious problem [342 U.S. 246, 273] in drafting such a statute is to avoid gaps and loopholes between offenses. It is significant that the English and State codifiers have tried to cover the same type of conduct that we are suggesting as the purpose of Congress here, without, however, departing from the common-law tradition that these are crimes of intendment.

    We find no grounds for inferring any affirmative instruction from Congress to eliminate intent from any offense with which this defendant was charged.