Joseph Edward Morissette, a 27-year-old Army veteran, lived with his wife and son in Oscoda, Mich.[1] Morissette supported his family by working in fruit markets, hauling scrap iron and driving truck.

In the fall of 1948, Morissette went deer hunting with his brother-in-law in an area popular with deer hunters. The property was owned by the Conservation Department and the Department of Agriculture of the State of Michigan, but had been leased to the Air Force, which used it as a practice bombing range. While hunting, Morissette came upon a pile of bomb casings in the woods. These casings had been piled for approximately four years and showed signs of rust and decomposition.

Morissette assumed that the casings had been abandoned and were of little use to anyone. He collected some of the casings, flattened them, and sold them as scrap metal for $84 (about $800 today). While Morissette was hauling some of the bomb casings, a police officer stopped him and asked about the casings. Morissette told the officer where he obtained the casings. The matter was reported to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and Morissette was indicted and convicted in federal court for “unlawfully, wilfully and knowingly steal[ing] and convert[ing]” property owned by the United States government.[2]

Morissette told investigating officers and testified at his trial that he believed the casings to be abandoned, and had not intended to steal government property. The court refused Morissette’s argument of his “innocent intention” and instructed the jury that Morissette’s admission to taking the property called for a guilty verdict. Morissette was convicted and faced two months in prison or a fine of $200 (about $1,900 today).

Joseph Morissette could little foresee that his 1948 hunting trip would result in a seminal decision from the U.S. Supreme Court. The case hinged on whether Morissette, when he took the abandoned casings, possessed the requisite intent to be convicted of the federal law prohibiting theft of U.S. property.

This report explores this area of the law — culpability and criminal intent — and makes recommendations for how Michigan policymakers could improve standards for establishing criminal intent for the conviction of crimes.