We hear the term but may not know what it means. There is a good reason for that. “Crimes involving moral turpitude” (CIMT) is a term for a group of crimes very loosely defined as either depraved or immoral acts, violations of the basic duties owed to others, or as reprehensible acts with either a reckless or evil intent.

These crimes have also been defined as acts of baseness, vileness, or depravity within the duties people owe to each other and to society. These acts are contrary to what is accepted as being right between people.

These definitions are so vague that it has made it difficult to understand what the term really means. Yet, a moral turpitude conviction has negative effects on peoples’ lives, often in unexpected ways.

What Are Crimes of Moral Turpitude?

No crime is ever actually defined or listed as a crime of moral turpitude. No state statutes exist that define it. This catch-all phrase has been accused of being so vague as to be unconstitutional, yet the term continues to have legal effect.

In large part, we must turn to immigration court decisions and opinions to understand the term and its implications. The issue comes up with some regularity in this context. Immigration courts have come to characterize these crimes as generally either involving an intent to commit theft or fraud or acts which inflict great bodily harm. Other crimes of moral turpitude include some reckless or malicious offenses and those involving lewd intent.

Thus, some typical CIMT crimes might include:

This list is certainly not exhaustive. Additionally, recent case law seems to indicate that an administrative judge can move beyond the title of a prior offense to questioning a defendant on all the underlying facts of their case to determine whether their conduct in that particular case rises to the level of a CIMT. Thus, a person’s conviction of petty theft could be characterized as a CIMT if the underlying facts support it in the judge’s eyes.

CIMT crimes all involve intent. Intent is crucial in the designation of a crime as a CIMT crime. The act must be morally reprehensible. It must shock the conscience.

Thus, crimes that do not involve intent, such as involuntary manslaughter, likely do not involve a CIMT. Likewise, aggravating factors such as the use of a deadly weapon or the absence of an aggravating factor can make a big difference. For example, simple assault is likely not a CIMT. But aggravated assault with intent to cause grave bodily injury is likely to be classified as a CIMT.

Working with an attorney to negate the effects of a CIMT can be vitally important. Some crimes can be pled down to a charge that will not carry the stigma of a CIMT designation. This can be particularly important when that characterization can affect a person for years to come. An experienced criminal defense attorney can help.

How Conviction For a Crimes Involving Moral Turpitude Affect Lives

Being convicted of a “crime of moral turpitude” can block a person’s visa or green card application in the United States. It causes them to be “inadmissible.”  It may also cause a noncitizen to be deported from the U.S.

To be granted U.S. citizenship, an applicant must show that they are of good moral character. The matter of what constitutes a CIMT is often litigated in immigration court, so much of our understanding of what constitutes a CIMT and how it can affect a person come from that context.

Under U.S. immigration law, a non-citizen may be deported from the U.S. based on a CIMT conviction if the sentence for the CIMT includes jail time of one year or longer, and the conviction occurs within five years after the person was admitted into the U.S. An alien may be deported if the immigrant has 2 or more CIMT convictions which arise out of different criminal plots or schemes.

Being convicted of a CIMT may also prevent a person from obtaining a professional license or may cause a person to lose their license. The American Bar Association (ABA) promulgated a Model Code of Professional Responsibility which outlines ethical codes for attorneys. 

Disciplinary Rules define the actions that constitute misconduct. One of those rules, DR 1-101(A)(3) states that it is misconduct for a lawyer to engage “in illegal conduct involving moral turpitude.”  Every jurisdiction defines moral turpitude differently and not all states will disbar an attorney for a crime of moral turpitude. Kentucky is a state that does disbar its lawyers for CIMT.

A CIMT may also be used to question a witness’s credibility. Felonies in general, and especially felonies that involve moral turpitude can be used to impeach a witness’s testimony. A witness who has engaged in illegal acts that are dishonest or that shock the conscience is less likely to be believed than a witness who has exhibited a sterling character.

These crimes carry unexpected consequences that can affect a person long after their sentence is completed. It is important to understand if and how you may be affected. And don’t hesitate to get help when you need it.