Moral Turpitude

Moral turpitude is a legal concept that refers to any conduct that is believed to be contrary to the community standards of honesty, justice, or good moral values. While there is no one exact definition of acts that are considered under moral turpitude, they are typically described as any acts of vileness or depravity, or of sexual immorality, whether in a private or social context. One example of moral turpitude is murder. To explore this concept, consider the following moral turpitude definition.

Definition of Moral Turpitude


  1. Conduct that is believed to be contrary to community standards of honesty, good morals, or justice.


15th century     Latin turpitudo (“vile” or “base”)

What is Moral Turpitude

The word turpitude is defined as a shameful, vile, or corrupt character or acts. Moral turpitude refers to conduct that shocks the public conscience, or which does not fall within the moral standards held by the community. The law concerning moral turpitude is constantly changing and evolving, as the moral standards of society in general change.

In a legal sense, moral turpitude affects a wide range of activities, some of which are unlawful, and some of which are not. In many areas, conduct of moral turpitude may be used to determine the honesty or trustworthiness of a candidate for office, an applicant for certain types of job, and witnesses at trial.

Crimes of Moral Turpitude

The issue of immigration is heavily reliant upon whether or not an immigrant has committed any crimes of moral turpitude. For the purposes of immigration, the federal government classifies certain crimes by moral turpitude, often referring to the statutes of the state in which the applicant may have committed a crime. This is because the laws of each state vary. An example of moral turpitude in most states is rape.

Categories of Crimes and Moral Turpitude

Crimes involving moral turpitude are generally grouped into three distinct general categories.  The general categories of crimes and moral turpitude include: (1) crimes against property, (2) crimes against the government, and (3) crimes against people. Each category consists of certain crimes involving moral turpitude, and crimes that are not considered to involve moral turpitude.

Category Involving Moral Turpitude Not Involving Moral Turpitude

Crimes Against Property

Fraud including mail fraud

Making false representations

Intending to defraud another person or a business







Damaging a person’s private property

Breaking and entering

Writing bad checks

Possessing stolen property


Crimes Against
the Government


Counterfeiting money

Fraud against government departments


Harboring a fugitive

Black market acts

Breaching of the peace

Carrying a concealed weapon without the proper permits

Deserting the Armed Forces

Disorderly conduct

Crimes Against People

Abandoning a child








Simple assault


Failing to register as a sex offender



Moral Turpitude and Immigration

The connection between moral turpitude and immigration laws first came about in 1891. The law at the time began stating that of “persons who have been convicted of a felony or other infamous crime or misdemeanor involving moral turpitude” shall be excluded from the United States.

While there is no standard federal definition of moral turpitude, the courts have interpreted the term many times throughout the years, creating common law on the subject. The Board of Immigration Appeals (“BIA”) describes moral turpitude as a nebulous concept, meaning that it is vague. The BIA believes the term refers to conduct that shocks the public sensibilities, and is contrary to the rules of morality and duties owed between two people or a person and society.

How Moral Turpitude Affects Applications to Enter the U.S.

Moral turpitude and immigration laws are closely related, as an alien convicted of a crime involving moral turpitude, or who has admitted to having committed such an act, is ineligible for a Visa. Generally, when a person attempts to enter the United States through the Visa Waiver Program and is asked to fill out the required forms, he is asked whether he has ever been convicted or arrested for an offense involving moral turpitude.

The ESTA online registration asks: “Have you ever been arrested or convicted for a crime that resulted in serious damage to property, or serious harm to another person or government authority?” Stating, “this question refers to crimes involving moral turpitude.”

Immigrants are not the only people screened for moral turpitude, as the non-immigrant visitor application, referred to as Form I-94W asks:

“Have you ever been arrested or convicted for an offense or crime involving moral turpitude or a violation related to a controlled substance; or been arrested or convicted for two or more offenses for which the aggregate sentence to confinement was five years or more; or been controlled substance trafficker; or are you seeking entry to engage in criminal or immoral activities?”

Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965

Before 1965, the immigration system in the United States was based on selecting immigrants based on their nation origin. The system created preferences for immigrants from countries in Northwestern Europe, and it restricted immigrants from countries such as Asia and Africa. In 1965, new laws eliminated the immigration quota based on national-origin.

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 not only banned discrimination of immigrants based on race, sex, and nationality, but it placed focus on immigrants who had family relationships with U.S. citizens. It also gave preference to immigrants with certain skill levels. The Act also set restrictions on the number of immigrants allowed into the United States.

The Act specifies strict application guidelines for immigrants requesting legal entry to the U.S. In addition, the Act outlined reasons a non-citizen can be deported, or prevented from obtaining a valid Visa. It specifies the grounds for which an alien is ineligible to receive a Visa, or is otherwise ineligible for admission. In general, it states that an alien is ineligible for admittance to the U.S. if he or she has been convicted of a crime, or has admitted to acts involving moral turpitude.

Moral Turpitude Example in Immigration

In 1989, Javier Castrijon-Garcia entered the U.S. illegally. He lived in the country without the proper documentation continually, with the exception of a couple of brief visits home to Mexico, for several years. In 1992, was arrested and pled guilty to attempted kidnapping, for which he was given a 300 day suspended sentence, and 3 years of Castrijon probation. Castrijon was set to be deported in 2007.

Because he had two children who were U.S. citizens, and a wife in the states legally, Castrijon appealed the deportation. The BIA determined Castrijon was ineligible for cancellation of his deportation because he had committed attempted kidnapping, which the court determined to be a crime of moral turpitude, as it “involves readiness to do evil and is an offense that grievously offends the moral code of mankind in its inherent nature.”

Castrijon appealed this decision, arguing that the appellate court’s basis for finding moral turpitude was not valid. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals (“appellate court”) determined that the BIA had failed to explain why simple kidnapping under California’s law involved a “readiness to do evil,” or why it is so offensive to mankind’s moral code.” The appellate court held that crimes of moral turpitude involve either fraud, or “grave acts of baseness or depravity.” The appellate court ruled that simple kidnapping under California’s law does not fall within the types of crimes previously determined to be crimes of moral turpitude.

The BIA’s determination that Castrijon was ineligible for cancellation of deportation was in error, and therefore overturned. The case was sent back to the BIA with the instruction to use the modified categorical approach to determining whether Castrijon was indeed convicted of a crime of moral turpitude. This example of moral turpitude in immigration illustrates the process of evaluating state law in classifying a crime as being “morally turpitudinous.”

College Professor Fired for Acts of Moral Turpitude

In 2012, Marco Dorfsman, an associate Spanish Professor as the University of New Hampshire altered evaluations given by colleague, French lecturer Emilie Taplin’s, students. Dorfsman changed the average score for each class taught by his colleague to make it seem as if her performance did not meet the standards set by her department. The defendant changed the scores in order to secure his job by eliminating Taplin’s position.

The issue came up when Professor Taplin’s contract came up for renewal in 2013. In January, 2013, Dorfsman admitted to the Board what he had done, claiming he had an emotional breakdown, which caused him to alter the scores. The university fired Dorfsman, stating that such acts of moral turpitude could not be tolerated at the institution. Dorfsman filed a grievance, claiming that a dismissal on ground of moral turpitude put his right to remain in the U.S. in jeopardy. An arbitrator overturned his termination, saying that, while his acts did meet the standard of moral turpitude, termination was excessive.

The university appealed the decision of the arbitrator to the state Superior Court. The court overturned the arbitrator’s decision, ruling that the arbitrator had exceeded his authority under the Collective Bargaining Agreement, which clearly states that, should charges involving moral turpitude be substantiated, the union member can be immediately terminated. The court further stated “the arbitrator may not rewrite the labor contract.”

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Appellate Court – A court having jurisdiction to review decisions of a trial-level or other lower court.
  • Defendant – A party against whom a lawsuit has been filed in civil court, or who has been accused of, or charged with, a crime or offense.
  • Fraud – A false representation of fact, whether by words, conduct, or concealment, intended to deceive another.
  • Immigration – The act of coming to live permanently in another country.

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