United States v. Morris

United States Court of Appeals, Second Circuit, 1991.

928 F.2d 504.

Dressler, pp. 149-153


Facts: Morris wrote a worm that he meant to be harmless and released it on the Internet.  It ended up causing damage that Morris did not foresee, including damage to federal computers.  Morris was found guilty of intentionally accessing and causing loss to federal computers.  Morris appealed on the basis that he didn’t intend to damage the computers and that the statute should be read to require intent to damage as well as intent to access.


Issue: Does the statute require the prosecution to prove that the defendant intentionally caused damage to federal computers, or only that the defendant intentionally accessed federal computers and in doing so caused damage (in this case unintentionally)?


Rule: One may be punished for damaging federal computers unintentionally if the damage resulted from intentional access to the computers.


Analysis: By way of a review of legislative history, the statute is interpreted to only require intent to access and not intent to damage.  In particular, the court cites a change that was made which added the intent requirement in order to prevent convicting people of accidentally accessing someone else’s computer.


Conclusion: The conviction was upheld.


Notes and Questions


1.     Morris would have been found not guilty under the Model Penal Code because he did not perform all the elements of the crime knowingly.  He only accessed the computers knowingly.  He did not cause damage knowingly.  § 2.02(4) says that in the absence of clear language to the contrary, all the required elements of the offense must be accompanied by, in this case, knowledge in order to find guilt.

2.     In this case, it would seem that subsection (2) would apply because Gottesman is accused of “distribution” of a “visual depiction” whose production “involves the use of a minor engaging in sexually explicit conduct”.  The question is: what must be done “knowingly”, and what attendance circumstances must be “known” in order for a person to be guilty of the offense?  It seems that the term “knowledge” applies to the act of “distribution”.  You could come up with some hypotheticals, however, that would seem to demonstrate that the statute is ridiculous unless “knowledge” applies to the character of the depictions.  The distributor might knowingly distribute what he thinks is a picture of the Grand Canyon, but it turns out that when the picture is treated with certain chemicals it reveals a depiction forbidden by statute.  It seems, therefore, that “knowingly” must be taken to apply to the nature of the visual depiction involved.  The latter is what the Supreme Court decided.  You could also argue, however, that the statute writers were going for something closer to strict liability.

3.     Based on Model Penal Code § 2.02, knowledge would be required for each “material element” of the offense, unless the purpose is plainly to the contrary.  I think the Model Penal Code would generally weigh strongly toward giving the jury the instruction the defendant requested.


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