What Is a Crime of Moral Turpitude? Definition and Examples

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A crime of moral turpitude is generally interpreted as an offense that insults general morality. The term can be broken down into two parts: crime refers to an offense punishable by law, and moral turpitude refers to corrupt or degenerate conduct that generally insults public consciousness.

It is important to note that this is not an established legal definition. Legal scholars have called the term "vague," "nebulous," and "unfortunate." Although the term appears in laws, Congress has neglected to define it and the courts have declined to find the vagueness unconstitutional.

Key Takeaways: Crimes of Moral Turpitude

  • A "crime of moral turpitude" is commonly understood as an offense against publicly known morals. However, Congress has never given a definition of moral turpitude.
  • The term has been used in immigration law since 1891.
  • Under the Immigration Act of 1952, individuals can be excluded from entering the U.S. if they have committed or admitted to a crime involving moral turpitude. Individuals can also be deported if they are convicted of a crime involving moral turpitude.

Legal Definition

Moral turpitude has been defined differently throughout American legal history. In 1990, one of the earlier editions of Black's Law Dictionary stated that moral turpitude, was an:

...act of baseness, vileness, or the depravity in private and social duties which man owes to his fellow man, or to society in general, contrary to the accepted and customary rule of right and duty between man and man".

In Hamden v. Immigration Naturalization Service (1996), the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals built upon the definition in Black's Law Dictionary. The justices wrote that it "has been defined as an act which is per se morally reprehensible and intrinsically wrong." Other appeals courts have used that definition and definitions close to that in their rulings.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) has its own definition for the term. The USCIS policy manual defines it as:

"...conduct that shocks the public conscience as being inherently base, vile, or depraved, contrary to the rules of morality and the duties owed between man and man, either one’s fellow man or society in general.”

List of Crimes of Moral Turpitude

Congress has not created a list of crimes that fall into the category of "moral turpitude." The U.S. Department of State Foreign Affairs Manual says that common elements involving moral turpitude are "fraud, larceny, and intent to harm." When a crime is committed against a person, malicious intent is generally necessary for it to qualify as moral turpitude. The following crimes have fallen into the category of moral turpitude:

  • Murder
  • Voluntary manslaughter
  • Rape
  • Abuse
  • Prostitution
  • Fraud
  • Theft
  • Blackmail/bribery
  • Aggravated assault
  • Arson
  • Smuggling/kidnapping
  • Harboring a fugitive
  • Perjury
  • Mayhem
  • Conspiring to commit any of the above crimes or acting as an accessory

Uses of Moral Turpitude

Moral turpitude has been used by the American Bar Association (ABA) and in medical licensing as a reason for disbarment or revocation. In 1970, the ABA released a Model Code of Professional Responsibility which listed "illegal conduct involving moral turpitude" as grounds for disbarment. By 1983, the ABA removed the term because it was too broad and vague. For example, a lawyer might be disbarred for adultery under that term. State bar associations followed the ABA's revisions and amended their own codes. California is the only state to still follow a code that uses moral turpitude.

Even though the term was removed from the ABA Model Code, moral turpitude is still commonly referred to as a part of immigration law.

Moral Turpitude and Immigration Law

Congress began excluding certain groups of individuals from immigration eligibility in 1875. Between 1875 and 1917 Congress added convictions that could exclude an immigrant from eligibility. In 1891, Congress added the term "moral turpitude" to immigration law. The Immigration Act of 1917 introduced deportations for people convicted of a "crime of moral turpitude." However, it wasn't until 1952 that the Immigration and Nationality Act allowed for the exclusion of individuals for committing, being convicted of, or admitting to a crime involving moral turpitude. The Department of Homeland Security can only deport someone if they are convicted of this type of crime, rather than accused.

There is precedential case history for judges to use when deciding whether a crime is one involving moral turpitude. However, interpretation of the term is up to individual discretion depending on the case.

The Supreme Court on Crimes of Moral Turpitude

The Supreme Court has only addressed the constitutionality of moral turpitude once. In Jordan v. De George (1951), Sam De George, an immigrant facing deportation, used a habeas corpus petition to ask the court whether "conspiracy to defraud the United States of taxes on distilled spirits is a 'crime involving moral turpitude' within the meaning of § 19(a) of the Immigration Act of 1917." Justice Vinson's majority opinion went beyond this question. The Court ruled that the term was not unconstitutionally vague because it had been present in immigration law for over 60 years, it had been used in other legal contexts, and fraud always involves moral turpitude "without exception."

Sources

  • Rotunda, Ronald D. “Disciplining Lawyers Who Engage in Moral Turpitude.” Verdict, Justia, 21 June 2015, verdict.justia.com/2015/06/22/disciplining-lawyers-who-engage-in-moral-turpitude.
  • Jordan v. De George, 341 U.S. 223 (1951).
  • “Moral Turpitude Law and Legal Definition.” USLegal, definitions.uslegal.com/m/moral-turpitude/.
  • Moore, Derrick. “Crimes Involving Moral Turpitude: Why the Void-for-Vagueness Argument Is Still Available and Meritorious.” Cornell International Law Journal, vol. 41, no. 3, 2008.
  • U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. "Policy Manual: Conditional Bars for Acts in Statutory Period." USCIS. https://www.uscis.gov/policymanual/HTML/PolicyManual-Volume12-PartF-Chapter5.html.
  • Hamden v. Immigration Naturalization Service, 98 F.3d 183 (1996).
  • U.S. Department of State. "Foreign Affairs Manual: Crimes Involving Moral Turpitude." vol. 9. https://fam.state.gov/fam/09FAM/09FAM030203.html.