"Crimes Involving Moral Turpitude" in California Criminal Law

Certain California crimes are considered "crimes involving moral turpitude". A conviction for a crime of moral turpitude can

  • affect your immigration status if you are not a citizen of the United States,1
  • impeach your credibility as a witness,2 and / or
  • cause you to lose a professional license, like your right to practice law. 3

Crimes of moral turpitude and criminal immigration law

The immigration consequences of convictions for crimes of moral turpitude (also known as "crimes of moral turpitude" or "CIMTs") can be particularly harsh.

Crimes of moral turpitude can be deportable crimes under some circumstances, which means that they can lead to you being removed from the country. 4

US-immigration-enforcement-badge
A conviction for a crime of moral turpitude can have serious immigration consequences.

And most crimes involving moral turpitude are so-called " inadmissible crimes,"5 which means that they can prevent you from

  1. re-entering the country after leaving,
  2. becoming a US citizen, or
  3. applying for a green card or an "adjustment of status" -- that is, a change from illegal to legal immigration status.6

Other consequences of a CIMT conviction

But non-US-citizens are not the only people who have to worry about being convicted of a crime involving moral turpitude.

If you have a conviction for a CIMT on your record, and you are called upon to testify at a trial, the lawyer for the opposing side can let the jury know about your conviction7--which may affect their willingness to believe you.

Your career also may be affected--or even destroyed--by a conviction of a crime of moral turpitude.

For example, California lawyers may face discipline from the state bar if they are convicted of a crime involving moral turpitude.8 And California state employees may face discipline if they are convicted of a crime of moral turpitude.9

Definition of a crime of moral turpitude

Despite being an extremely important concept in criminal immigration law, the legal definition of moral turpitude is not entirely clear.10

But, generally speaking, a crime of moral turpitude is usually a crime that involves either

  • dishonesty,
  • fraud, or
  • antisocial behavior that harms others.11

Example: Peter is from Canada but comes to the United States on a student visa to attend law school. After graduating, he is admitted to the California bar and gets a job at a law firm in San Francisco. The firm arranges for him to get a work visa that allows him to remain in the United States.

But then Peter is convicted of the crime of California forgery--which is a crime of moral turpitude.12

This conviction makes him inadmissible to the United States--which means he can not apply for a green card or US citizenship. Also, it leads to him having his law license suspended by the California bar.

In order to help you better understand the legal definition and immigration and professional consequences of "crimes involving moral turpitude", our  California criminal defense attorneys will address the following:

1. What Impact Will a Crime of Moral Turpitude Conviction Have on My Immigration Status?

The federal Immigration and Nationality Act (usually referred to as the "INA") provides that, if a non-citizen living in the United States is convicted of certain criminal offenses, s / he may be either

  • deportable,13 or
  • inadmissible.14

1.1. Are crimes involving moral turpitude deportable crimes?

If you are deportable, that means that you may be removed from the United States -- regardless of your immigration status (visa holder, green card holder, etc.) and how long you have lived here.

Department-of-Homeland-Security-seal-representing-deportation
Certain convictions for crimes of moral turpitude can make you deportable.

Fortunately, not every conviction for a crime of moral turpitude will make you deportable.

Instead, you are deportable only if you either:

  1. Are convicted of a crime of moral turpitude for which a sentence of one (1) year or longer may be imposed, within five (5) years of being admitted to the US, OR
  2. Are convicted of two (2) or more crimes of moral turpitude that did not arise out of a single criminal scheme.15

Example: Elena is a green card holder from Mexico. After she has been living in the US for ten years, she is convicted of possession of drugs for sale -- which is a crime of moral turpitude.16

Because Elena has been convicted of only one crime of moral turpitude, and the conviction occurred more than five years after she entered the US, she is not deportable.

But let's say a few years later Elena is convicted of felony hit and run--also a crime of moral turpitude. Because she now has two CIMT convictions on her record, she may now be deported.

1.2. Are crimes involving moral turpitude inadmissible crimes?

If you are inadmissible, that means that you may not be able to:

  • Apply for permanent resident status (aka a "green card"),
  • Apply for an adjustment of status (that is, become a legal immigrant if you are currently here illegally),
  • Re-enter the country after leaving, or
  • Naturalize as a US citizen.18

You can be deemed inadmissible if you either

  • are convicted of, or
  • admit all the elements of,

any crime of moral turpitude.19

Note the difference between deportability and inadmissibility where crimes involving moral turpitude are concerned. To be deportable, you need either a fairly serious CIMT conviction within five years of arrival, or two or more CIMT convictions. But you can be inadmissible with only a single CIMT conviction.20

US-map-over-green-card
A conviction for a crime of moral turpitude can prevent you from obtaining a "green card."

But there is one exception to the rule that a single CIMT conviction makes you inadmissible. If

  • your conviction is for only one crime,
  • the maximum sentence for that crime does not exceed one (1) year, AND
  • you are sentenced to a jail term of six (6) months or less,

then a conviction for a crime of moral turpitude will not make you inadmissible.21

This is known as the "petty offense exception."

Example: In the introduction to this article, we offered the example of Peter--a Canadian lawyer practicing in the US on a work visa.

Peter is convicted of California forgery, a crime of moral turpitude.22 A forgery conviction  could make him inadmissible--and unable to obtain a green card.

But let's say Peter's conviction was for forgery as a misdemeanor. This crime carries a maximum penalty of one year in county jail.23 In Peter's case, the judge decide to sentence him to only three months in jail.

Therefore, Peter's crime of moral turpitude conviction falls within the "petty offense exception"--and he will not be inadmissible because of it.

2. Will a CIMT Conviction Affect My Status as a Witness in Court?

Another important area where the concept of a "crime of moral turpitude" comes up is the impeachment of witnesses--that is, the introduction of evidence about a witness's criminal history in order to convince the jury not to believe his/her testimony.24

In California criminal trials, past convictions for felonies that are crimes of moral turpitude can always be admitted to impeach a witness.25

And criminal conduct that constitutes a crime of moral turpitude can also be admitted to impeach a witness--even if the witness was only convicted of a misdemeanor for it.26

Jurors in a California criminal jury trial may distrust a witness's testimony if s/he has a past conviction for a moral turpitude crime, particularly one involving dishonesty.

Example: Gilbert is on trial for assault with a deadly weapon. He will testify in his own defense at trial.

But Gilbert also has a past felony conviction for willfully failing to appear in court after being granted bail.

Because this is a crime of moral turpitude, the prosecutor can use his past conviction to impeach his credibility -- leading the jury to question whether His testimony is believable.27

3. Can a Crime Involving Moral Turpitude Cause Me to Lose My Professional License?

Another major impact that a crime of moral turpitude conviction could have on your life is the loss of employment or a professional license.

Specifically, if you are a California lawyer, and you are convicted of any crime of moral turpitude, you may be either

  • suspended from the practice of law, or
  • disbarred.28
Cartoon-image-of-lawyer-under-word-disbarred
A California lawyer convicted of a crime of moral turpitude may be disbarred.

Or, if you are a California state employee in any capacity, you will be subject to discipline--and possibly suspension from or the loss of your job--if you are convicted of a crime Involving moral turpitude.29

4. What is the Legal Definition of "Crimes Involving Moral Turpitude"?

According to Pasadena criminal defense attorney Neil Shouse:30

"Given the significant consequences of a conviction of a crime of moral turpitude, you would think that California law would provide a clear definition of just what a crime of moral turpitude is. But in fact the law In this area is quite vague--and constantly open to analysis and reinterpretation by California and federal courts. "

The phrase "crime of moral turpitude" is not defined anywhere in California or federal immigration statutes. Instead, judges have had to formulate the definition--and decide which crimes count and which ones do not.31

The basic legal definition of a crime of moral turpitude is a crime that involves either

  • Dishonesty (including fraud), or
  • Base, vile, or depraved conduct that "shocks the public conscience."32

Even this basic definition is not much help, though--since the question of what kind of behavior is bad enough to shock the public conscience leaves lots of room for difference of opinion.33

Criminal intent

One hallmark of crimes Involving moral turpitude is that they are almost always intent crimes. This means that the elements of the crime must include some form of criminal intent.34

This, in turn, means that crimes involving moral turpitude generally do not include so-called "strict liability" crimes (such as traffic tickets) or crimes that only require negligence as a mental state.35

This makes sense when you think about it. A CIMT is supposed to be a crime that is morally reprehensible. It should not include a crime that can be the result of a mere mistake, accident, or bad judgment call.

Example: Marek is an immigrant from Poland and a US green card holder. Because of a domestic dispute, police are summoned to his home, and they bring a K-9 unit dog with them. Marek, who is afraid of dogs, kicks and attacks the dog.

Marek is then charged with--and pleads guilty to--assault on a law-enforcement officer.

In New Jersey, where all this occurs, that crime does not require any intent to harm an officer. Instead, it requires only negligence. (In contrast, the California crime of battery on a police officer does require that the attack be willful.36)

Because only negligence is required, Marek has not committed a crime of moral turpitude that will affect his immigration status.37

Recklessness and crimes of moral turpitude

One question on which the law is currently not entirely clear is whether recklessness is enough to make a crime into a crime involving moral turpitude.

Recklessness is defined as a conscious disregard for a substantial risk that someone will be injured or killed by your actions. It lies somewhere between specific intent to commit a crime, and mere negligence.38 One crime that has recklessness as an element is the form of California arson known as "reckless burning."39

Some courts have held that recklessness is enough to make a crime into a crime of moral turpitude.40 But others think that it is not.41

Categorical approach / least adjudicated elements test

When trying to determine whether you have been convicted of a crime of moral turpitude, a court will look at the generic definition of the crime you were convicted of--NOT the specific details of what you did.42

Gavel-on-law-books
In general, judges look only to the statutory definition of the crime to determine if you committed a crime of moral turpitude.

In criminal immigration law, courts call this the "categorical approach."43 In the context of cases Involving CIMTs and impeachment of witnesses, California courts call it the "least adjudicated elements test."44

In some cases, one criminal statute will criminalize two or more kinds of behavior--some of which are crimes of moral turpitude, and some of which are not. In these sorts of cases, courts apply what they call the "modified categorical approach."

Under the modified categorical approach, courts look at a few specific documents from your criminal case to determine exactly what behavior you were convicted of (and thus whether you committed a CIMT).45

The documents the court is allowed to look at to determine if you committed a crime of moral turpitude are:

  • The indictment,
  • The judgment of conviction,
  • The jury instructions,
  • Ant signed guilty plea, and
  • The transcript from the plea proceedings.46

Example: Ed, a green card holder from Mexico, is arrested for violating  Penal Code 273.5 PC, California's law against corporal injury on a spouse.

This law criminalizes violence against a current or former spouse, and any person with whom one lives. Courts have held that it is a crime of moral turpitude to commit this crime against a spouse--but not against someone with whom the defendant has only been living.47

Therefore, under the modified categorical approach, Ed's conviction for Penal Code 273.5 PC is not necessarily a conviction for a CIMT. It will be a CIMT only if the documents listed above show clearly that Ed committed the crime of domestic abuse with bodily injury against a wife or ex-wife.

There is one exception to this rule: in attorney discipline cases, courts can look at the specific facts of your case to determine whether or not what you did involved moral turpitude.48

In other words, even if you are convicted of a crime whose statutory definition does not necessarily involve moral turpitude, the California State Bar may still look at the record of your trial and conviction and determine that you committed the crime in a way that Involved moral turpitude.

5. Which Crimes are Crimes of Moral Turpitude?

With that legal definition of a CIMT in mind, which California crimes are and are not crimes of moral turpitude?

It is not possible to list every crime that could Involve moral turpitude. Moreover, courts continue to disagree on whether certain crimes are CIMTs.49

That Said, here is a list of some of the major offenses that have been held to be crimes of moral turpitude:

  • Assault with Intent to commit murder,50
  • Attempted lewd acts on a minor,51
  • Arson,52
  • Burglary,53
  • Child abuse,54
  • Criminal Threats,55
  • Domestic violence when committed against your spouse,56
  • Failure to register as a sex offender,57
  • Felon in possession of a firearm,58
  • Felony hit and run,59
  • Grand theft auto,60
  • Murder,61
  • Perjury,62
  • Possession for sale of controlled substances,63
  • Rape,64
  • Receiving stolen property,65
  • Robbery,66
  • Trespass with the intent to injure any property or property rights, or interfere with the conduct of business,67
  • Voluntary manslaughter,68and
  • Welfare fraud.69

Crimes that are not CIMTs

Given how long the list of crimes of moral turpitude is, you may be wondering which crimes do not qualify as crimes Involving moral turpitude.

Some examples of offenses that courts have held are not CIMTs are:

  • Child endangerment,70
  • Domestic violence committed on someone other than your spouse,71
  • Most single first offenses of California DUI,72
  • Involuntary manslaughter,73
  • Kidnapping without any aggravating factors,74
  • Possession of marijuana,75 and
  • Simple assault without any aggravating factors.76

6. Can I Get Post-Conviction Relief for a Crime of Moral Turpitude?

If you are a non-US citizen with a California conviction for a crime of moral turpitude on your record, you may still be able to avoid the immigration consequences of that conviction.

An experienced California criminal immigration attorney can offer you advice on the possibility of receiving some kind of post-conviction relief. This can--but will not necessarily--mean that your previous conviction will not count against you for immigration purposes.

Some of the most common forms of post-conviction relief are:

  • Reduction of a felony to a misdemeanor,
  • Motion to vacate a conviction based on a guilty plea if you were not advised of the immigration consequences of the plea,77
  • Re-sentencing so that your new, lesser sentence does not trigger immigration consequences, and
  • Motion to vacate a conviction based on a claim that you received ineffective assistance of counsel (i.e., bad legal advice).78

Call Us for Help ...

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If you or a loved one is charged with a crime of moral turpitude and you are looking to hire an attorney for representation, we invite you to contact our Los Angeles immigration attorneys at Shouse Law Group. We can provide a free consultation in our office or phone. See the overview of our California immigration services.

We have local offices in Los Angeles, the San Fernando Valley, Pasadena, Long Beach, Orange County, Ventura, San Bernardino, Rancho Cucamonga, Riverside, San Diego, Sacramento, Oakland, San Francisco, San Jose and throughout California.

For cases in Nevada, we invite you to read our page on crimes involving moral turpitude in Nevada law.


Legal References:

  1. Immigration & Nationality Act ("INA") 237 (a) (2) (A), 8 USC 1227 (a) (2) (A). ("(I) Crimes of moral turpitude [Important concept for criminal immigration law]. . . .  ")

    See also INA 212 (a) (2) (A) (i) (I), 8 USC 1182 (a) (2) (A) (i) (I) [inadmissible crimes, including crimes of moral turpitude]. 

  2. People v. Harris (2005) 37 Cal.4th 310, 337. ("Past criminal conduct Involving moral turpitude that has some logical bearng on the veracity of a witness in a criminal proceeding is admissible to impeach.")
  3. See, e.g., Business & Professions Code 6101 (a) BPC - suspension or disbarment of attorneys for crimes of moral turpitude.
  4. INA 237 (a) (2) (A), endnote 1 above.
  5. INA 212 (a) (2) (A) (i) (I), endnote 1 above.
  6. INA 245, 8 USC 1255 - Adjustment of status of nonimmigrant to that of person admitted for permanent residence [can be affected by conviction of a crime of moral turpitude]. 
  7. See, eg, People v. Harris, endnote 2 above.
  8. Business & Professions Code 6101 (a) BPC - suspension or disbarment of attorneys for crimes of moral turpitude, endnote 3 above.
  9. Government Code Section 19572 (k) GC. 
  10. See Nunez v. Holder, (2010) 594 F.3d 1124, 1124 ("Once again we face the question of what is moral turpitude [for purposes of criminal immigration law]: a nebulous question that we are required to answer on the basis of judicially established categories of criminal conduct. ")
  11. In re Craig, (1938) 12 Cal.2d 93, 97. ("Moral turpitude [a key concept in criminal immigration law] has been defined by many authorities as an act of baseness, vileness or depravity in the private and social duties which a man owes to his fellow men, or to society in general, contrary to the accepted and customary rule of right and duty between man and man. ")
  12. People v. Parrish (1985) 170 Cal.App.3d 336, 349.
  13. See INA 237, endnote 1 above [deportable crimes, including crimes of moral turpitude].
  14. See INA 212, endnote 1 above [inadmissible crimes, including crimes of moral turpitude].
  15. See INA 237, endnote 1 above [deportable crimes, including crimes of moral turpitude].
  16. People v. Castro (1985) 38 Cal.3d 301, 317.
  17. People v. Bautista, (1990) 217 Cal.App.3d 1, 7.
  18. See INA 245, endnote 6 above.

    See also INA 316 (a) [naturalization requiremnts].

  19. See INA 212, endnote 1 above [inadmissible crimes, including crimes of moral turpitude].
  20. See same. See also INA 237, endnote 1 above [deportable crimes, including crimes of moral turpitude].
  21. See INA 212, endnote 1 above [inadmissible crimes, including crimes of moral turpitude].
  22. People v. Parrish (1985) 170 Cal.App.3d 336, 349.
  23. Penal Code 473 PC - Forgery [crime of moral turpitude]; punishment. 
  24. Black's Law Dictionary (9th ed. 2009), impeachment . ("2. The act of discrediting a witness, as by catching the witness in a lie or by demonstrating that the witness has been convicted of a criminal offense [such as a crime of moral turpitude].")
  25. People v. Maestas, (2005) 132 Cal.App.4th 1552, 1556. ("Any felony conviction necessarily involving moral turpitude may be used to impeach a witness at a criminal proceeding.... If a felony conviction does not necessarily Involve moral turpitude, it is inadmissible for impeachment as a matter of law. ")
  26. People v. Cadogan (2009) 173 Cal.App.4th 1502, 1514. ("Past criminal conduct involving moral turpitude that has some logical bearing on the veracity of a witness in a criminal proceeding is admissible to impeach a witness.")
  27. Based on the facts of People v. Maestas, endnote 25, above.
  28. Business & Professions Code 6101 (a) BPC - suspension or disbarment of attorneys for crimes of moral turpitude, endnote 3 above.
  29. Government Code Section 19572 (k) GC, endnote 9 above.
  30. Pasadena criminal defense attorney Neil Shouse is the Managing Attorney of Shouse Law Group. Shouse is a former Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney, where he worked on complex, high-profile gang, murder, and firearms cases. Now, Shouse has turned the inside knowledge he gained as a prosecutor into extraordinary expertise in criminal defense law, including the intersection of criminal and immigration law and thorny legal issues such as crimes of moral turpitude. 
  31. See Nunez v. Holder, (2010) 594 F.3d 1124, 1124. ("Once again we face the question of what is moral turpitude [for purposes of criminal immigration law]: a nebulous question that we are required to answer on the basis of judicially established categories of criminal conduct.")
  32. Same, at 1131.
  33. See same, at 1127. ("There is simply no overall agreement on many issues of morality in contemporary society.")
  34. Fernandez-Ruiz v. Gonzales, (9th Cir. 2006) 468 F.3d 1159, 1165-66. ("Indeed, this circuit's precedent generally requires" willfulness "or" evil intent" in order for a crime to be classified as one Involving moral turpitude.")
  35. See Partyka v. Att'y Gen. of the US, (3rd Cir. 2005) 417 F.3d 408, 414. ("Under either standard, the hallmark of moral turpitude is a reprehensible act committed with an appreciable level of consciousness or deliberation. The negligent infliction of bodily injury lacks this essential culpability requirement.")
  36. Penal Code 242 PC - Battery [a crime of moral turpitude]. 
  37. Based on the facts of Partyka v. Att'y Gen., endnote 35 above.
  38. Black's Law Dictionary (9th ed. 2009), recklessness
  39. Penal Code 452 PC - Reckless burning [may be a crime of moral turpitude].
  40. Partyka v. Att'y Gen., endnote 35, above, at 414. ("In recent years, however, the BIA has found moral turpitude to inhere in serious crimes committed recklessly, i.e., with a conscious disregard of a substantial and unjustifiable risk that serious injury or death would follow.")
  41. Fernandez-Ruiz v. Gonzales, endnote 34 above, at 1166-1167. ("Although a finding of willfulness and / or evil intent is necessary in order to establish moral turpitude, Arizona's Class 2 misdemeanor assault does not require a willful intentional or act. Rather, one can be convicted under subsection (A) (1) for "recklessly causing any physical injury to another person." . . . Because Fernandez-Ruiz was convicted of an offense that does not require willfulness, his Arizona Class 2 misdemeanor assault conviction does not, for this reason alone, categorically qualify as a crime of moral turpitude.")
  42. People v. Castro (1985) 38 Cal.3d 301, 316 ("Therefore, as in the Finley-Crowson line of cases, a witness' prior conviction should only be admissible for impeachment if the least adjudicated elements of the conviction necessarily Involve moral turpitude.")

    See also Huerta-Guevara v. Ashcroft, (9th Cir. 2003) 321 F.3d 883, 887.

    See also Cuevas-Gaspar v. Gonzales, (9th Cir. 2005), 430 F.3d 1013, 1017. "The issue is not whether the current conduct constitutes a crime involving moral turpitude, but, rather, whether the full range of conduct encompassed by the statute constitutes a crime of moral turpitude.")

  43. Fernandez-Ruiz v. Gonzales, endnote 34 above, at 1163. ("To determine whether a specific crime falls within the category of "crimes Involving moral turpitude," we apply the categorical and modified categorical approaches....")
  44. See People v. Castro, endnote 42, above.
  45. Fernandez-Ruiz v. Gonzales, endnote 34 above, at 1163-1164. 
  46. See same.
  47. Morales-Garci v. Holder, (9th Cir. 2009) 567 F.3d 1058, 1067.
  48. See People v. Cavazos, (1985) 172 Cal.App.3d 589, 595. 
  49. Compare Nunez v. Holder, endnote 10 above [holding that indecent exposure is not a crime of moral turpitude), with People v. Ballard (1993) 13 Cal.App.4th 687, 697. ("Under California law, the felony offense of indecent exposure, a crime of moral turpitude, was properly used to impeach appellant's testimony.").
  50. People v. Omledo, (1985) 167 Cal.App.3d 1085, 1098.
  51. In re Lesansky, (2001) 25 Cal.4th 11.
  52. People v. Miles, (1985) 172 Cal.App.3d 474, 482.
  53. People v. Collins (1986) 42 Cal.3d 378, 395. 
  54. People v. Brooks (1992) 3 Cal.App.4th 669, 671. 
  55. Latter-Singh v. Holder, (9th Cir. 2012) 668 F.3d 1156.
  56. Grageda v. INS (9th Cir. 1993) 12 F.3d 919.
  57. Matter of Tobar-Lobo (BIA 2007) 24 I & N Dec. 143.
  58. People v. Littrel, (1986) 185 Cal.App.3d 699, 703.
  59. People v. Bautista, (1990) 217 Cal.App.3d 1, 7.
  60. People v. Rodriguez (1986) 177 Cal.App.3d 174, 178.
  61. People v. Johnson, (191) 233 Cal.App.3d 425, 459.
  62. People v. Roll (1977) 20 Cal.3d 109, 118.
  63. People v. Castro (1985) 38 C.3d 301, 317.
  64. People v. Mazza, (1985) 175 Cal.App.3d 836, 844.
  65. People v. Rodriguez (1986) 177 Cal.App.3d 174, 179.
  66. People v. Stewart, (1985) 171 Cal.App.3d 59, 66.
  67. See Matter of Esfandiary (BIA 1979) 16 I & N Dec. 659.
  68. People v. Partner, (1986) 180 Cal.App.3d 178, 187.
  69. Matter of Cortez, (BIA 2010) 25 I & N. Dec. 301.
  70. People v. Saunders, (1992) Cal.App.4 10 th 128, 1274).
  71. Morales-Garcia v. Holder, (9th Cir. 2009), 567 F.3d 1058.
  72. Hernandez-Perez v. Holder, (8th Cir. 2009) 569 F.3d 345, 348.
  73. People v. Solis, (1986) 172 Cal.App.3d 877, 883.
  74. Castrijon-Garcia v. Holder, (9th Cir. 2013) 704 F.3d 1205.
  75. People v. Valdez (1986) 177 Cal.App.3d 680, 697.
  76. People v. Cavazos, endnote 47 above.
  77. Penal Code 1016.5 PC - Advisement concerning status as alien [and of immigration consequences of California crime of moral turpitude convictions]. 
  78. See People v. Lucas (1995) 12 Cal.4th 415, 436. ("A criminal defendant [including a non-citizen accused of a crime involving moral turpitude] is guaranteed the right to the assistance of counsel by both the state and federal constitutions." )

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