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Moral Turpitude, n
What Is Moral Turpitude?
Moral turpitude is a legal concept used to define an act (crime) as immoral, depraved, and contrary to justice. Both felony and misdemeanor crimes can be considered crimes of moral turpitude if a court determines they meet the definition.
Moral turpitude is used in many areas of U.S. law. For example, it can justify:
- Deporting an immigrant or barring someone from entering the U.S.
- Disbarring an attorney
- Impeaching a witness
- Disqualifying a juror
History of Moral Turpitude
Moral turpitude originated as a test for slander in 1809, but it is now more commonly associated with determining whether someone is fit to perform a task (such as being a witness or juror) or to become/remain a U.S. citizen or immigrant.
Moral turpitude is a common law concept, which means it has been defined by the courts over time. Today, it is a broad and ambiguous concept, and the definition of moral turpitude varies among U.S. courts. One definition frequently used by courts goes back more than a century:
An act of inherent baseness, vileness, or depravity in the private and social duties which man does to his fellow man or to society in general, contrary to the accepted rule of right and duty between man and law. (Newell on Defamation, Slander, and Libel, section 12; Bouvier's Law Dictionary)
Moral Turpitude in Immigration Law
Moral turpitude is a significant concept in immigration law. If an immigrant/non-citizen is convicted of a crime involving moral turpitude (CIMT), they can be:
- Denied U.S. citizenship; or
- Denied a visa or green card
Usually, someone needs to have shown intent or at least recklessness for the crime to be considered a CIMT for immigration purposes.
Examples of Crimes Involving Moral Turpitude (Immigration)
Here are some examples of crimes that immigration courts have found to be crimes involving moral turpitude:
- Aggravated battery or aggravated assault
- Crimes involving unjustified violence and bodily harm
- Crimes involving the use of a dangerous weapon
- Theft (both petty* and grand) and robbery
- Spousal and child abuse
- Rape, Sexual conduct with a minor
- Animal fighting
- Driving under the influence of drugs (DUI-drugs)**
*Usually, if a person has committed only one petty offense and does not otherwise have a criminal record, they are not barred from immigration benefits (this is called the petty offense exception).
**When charged in federal court. Driving under the influence of alcohol is typically not a crime of moral turpitude.
Relevant CIMT Cases and Law:
- Brooker v. Coffin, 5 Johns. 188 (1809): Moral turpitude as part of test for slander
- In re Henry, 15 Idaho 755 (1909): Early case law explanation of moral turpitude
- 8 U.S.C. section 1182 (Immigration and Nationality Act): Moral turpitude in immigration law