Shoplifting... A crime of moral turpitude?

Posted by Neil Shouse | Feb 18, 2020 | 0 Comments

woman shoplifting
Shoplifting can be considered a crime of moral turpitude in California

Shoplifting is often a crime of moral turpitude (CIMT). If it is, it can increase the consequences of a conviction. It can impact a non-citizen's immigration status. In some contexts, however, shoplifting is not serious enough to count as a CIMT. Such petty offenses are exempted from crimes of moral turpitude.

Serious shoplifting cases can affect the collateral consequences of a conviction by:

  • impacting someone's immigration status,
  • causing employment problems,
  • preventing someone from obtaining a professional license or certificate, and
  • leading to disciplinary action that can revoke a license.

What is a crime of moral turpitude?

A crime of moral turpitude is a criminal offense that involves either:

  1. dishonesty or fraud, or
  2. conduct that is base, vile, depraved, or immoral.

Almost all of the crimes of moral turpitude involve intent. Generally, they cannot be committed because of:

  • a mistake,
  • an accident, or
  • something done out of ignorance.

However, petty offenses are exempt. They cannot be crimes of moral turpitude because they are not serious enough.

Notice, though, that these are all elements of a crime. They are not crimes, themselves. When a specific crime has these elements, it can be a crime of moral turpitude.1

Is shoplifting a petty offense?

Shoplifting is the crime of taking merchandise from a store without paying, with intent.2 This makes it a crime that involves:

  • intent, and
  • dishonesty.

However, shoplifting may be classified as a petty offense. If it is, it will not be a crime of moral turpitude. The value of the merchandise can matter a lot. If the alleged incident only involved $5, it may be considered a petty offense. If it involved $500, it probably will not be.

Why does the context matter?

Whether a criminal conviction is for a crime of moral turpitude will matter for the collateral consequences of the conviction. These are penalties that are not issued by the court. Instead, they come from:

  • other government agencies,
  • employers,
  • potential employers, and even
  • professional organizations.

Each of these parties can define a crime of moral turpitude differently. Shoplifting can be a crime of moral turpitude for one context, but not for another.

Does shoplifting matter for immigration?

Shoplifting is a crime of moral turpitude for immigration purposes.3

U.S. immigration law requires non-citizens to have a “good moral character.” If they do not, they can be:

A conviction for a crime of moral turpitude means they do not have a good moral character. Non-citizens convicted for shoplifting can be deported if:

  • they are convicted for shoplifting,
  • they receive a jail sentence of at least one year, and
  • the conviction happened within five years of being admitted to the U.S.

Deportation can also happen if:

  • they have another conviction for a crime of moral turpitude, in addition to the shoplifting conviction, and
  • that other conviction was distinct from the shoplifting case.6

Are there employment implications?

Shoplifting may be a crime of moral turpitude for employment purposes.

Many employers demand their employees have a good moral character. This requirement can be in the employment contract. Committing a crime of moral turpitude can breach this contract provision.

Some employers may consider shoplifting to be a crime of moral turpitude. Others may not. If they do, someone convicted for shoplifting will likely lose their job.

In California, state employees can even face discipline for a crime of moral turpitude.7

Can it create issues with professional certifications or licenses?

A conviction for shoplifting may also impact someone's professional license or certification.

Good moral character can be required to get a professional license. A crime of moral turpitude can prevent this from happening. A conviction can also lead to a license being revoked.

A few examples of licenses that require a good moral character include:

  • law licenses,8
  • medical licenses,9
  • mortgage broker licenses,10
  • nursing certifications,11 and
  • cosmetology licenses.12

People applying for one of these licenses can face issues if they have a prior conviction. A conviction can lead to discipline for those who have one already. They can face:

  • probation,
  • suspension,
  • license revocation, or
  • license revocation and a permanent ban from their profession.

In many professions, each state has its own licensing agency. A conviction may threaten a license in some states, but not others.

Some states may treat a shoplifting conviction as a crime of moral turpitude. Others may exempt it as a petty offense. Others may not treat shoplifting as a crime of moral turpitude, at all.

Legal References:

  1. See Almanza-Arenas v. Lynch, 815 F.3d 469 (9th Cir. 2016).

  2. See e.g., California Penal Code 459.5.

  3. Matter of Guillermo Diaz-Lizarraga, 26 I&N Dec. 847 (BIA 2016).

  4. 8 U.S.C. 1182(a)(2)(A)(i).

  5. 8 U.S.C. 1227(a)(2).

  6. 8 U.S.C. 1227(a)(2).

  7. California Government Code Section 19572(k).

  8. See e.g., California Business & Professions Code 6101(a).

  9. See e.g., New York Education Law 6524.

  10. See e.g., Texas Financial Code 156.303.

  11. See e.g., Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 112, Section 74.

  12. See e.g., Pennsylvania Cosmetology Law 4(a)(1).

About the Author

Neil Shouse

A former Los Angeles prosecutor, attorney Neil Shouse graduated with honors from UC Berkeley and Harvard Law School (and completed additional graduate studies at MIT). He has been featured on CNN, Good Morning America, Dr Phil, Court TV, The Today Show and Court TV. Mr Shouse has been recognized by the National Trial Lawyers as one of the Top 100 Criminal and Top 100 Civil Attorneys.


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