Mala Prohibita

The Latin term mala prohibita translates to mean “wrong because it is prohibited.” This is used in the legal system in reference to acts that, while not necessarily wrong by their very nature – such as murder – are wrong because there are laws prohibiting it. Examples of mala prohibita acts include such things as failing to pay taxes, and driving on the wrong side of the freeway. To explore this concept, consider the following mala prohibita definition.

Definition of Mala Prohibita

Pronounced: mal-uhm  pro-hib-it-uh

Plural. Singular form: malum prohibitum


  1. An act or offense that is prohibited by statute.


New Latin

What is Mala Prohibita

The Latin phrase mala prohibita – as used in modern times – refers to actions that are wrong simply because laws have been passed prohibiting them. Acts mala prohibita are contrasted by acts that are wrong, or evil in and of themselves. These evil acts are considered mala in se, which translates as “wrong in itself.”

Mala in se acts include things that humanity considers to be amoral and reprehensible, such as murder, assault, kidnapping, rape, stealing, and cruelty. These are things that are wrong by their very nature, and are looked upon as the more unpardonable offenses, often causing public outrage.

In contrast, acts mala prohibita are not immoral or unconscionable by their nature, but are banned or regulated by law for the good of the community. There are certain things that need to happen in order for a community to operate smoothly and peacefully. To accomplish this, rules, regulations, and laws are created and enforced. For instance, if everyone just got into their cars and drove wherever, however they wanted – without even being taught how to drive – our roads would be chaos. Rules of the road help keep people safe, and traffic moving.

While driving 50 mph in a 30 mph zone is not evil, or wrong in itself, it is prohibited by law – and therefore an act mala prohibita.

Mala Prohibita Crimes

Criminal acts are divided into the two categories, mala prohibitum, and mala in se. Mala prohibita crimes require proof that they are wrong, and that the accused person actually committed the act. These are the types of acts that, while it may not immediately appear that they directly harm someone, are still against the law.

Examples of mala prohibita crimes, or acts that are wrong because they are prohibited by law include such things as:

Copyright infringement Larceny (theft)
Drug-related crimes (such as possession, transportation, sales) Robbery (theft by force)
Alcohol-related crimes (such as drunk driving (DUI)) Burglary
Selling alcohol to a minor Petty theft
Indecent exposure Embezzlement
Pornography Forgery
White collar crimes False pretenses
Parking violations Receipt of stolen goods
Moving violations (traffic) Disrupting funeral services
Arson Violation of corporate regulations

Mala in se crimes, on the other hand are those that obviously and directly harm another person. Examples of crimes mala in se include murder, rape, kidnapping, stealing from others, child abuse, and other crimes against humanity.

Punishments for Acts Mala Prohibita

In general, mala prohibita acts are punished less harshly than acts mala in se. This stems from the old system of British common law, in which individuals convicted of crimes of varying severity were commonly punished in the same manner. For instance, a man convicted of stealing someone’s cow might be hanged right alongside another man who killed his wife’s lover.

In modern times, the legal system has sought to create a system of punishment that is adaptable to each type of crime, as well as other factors, such as the perpetrator’s criminal history, and whether he had intent to cause harm.

Example of mala prohibita acts:

Maria and Stella are hanging out behind the old hardware store in their small town, smoking marijuana with their friends. A police car pulls up and the other scatter, but Maria and Stella are caught. Because the officers can smell the strong odor of burning marijuana, they detain and search both girls, as well as their belongings. Stella has another joint in her backpack, so she is issued a citation, and returned to her parents in a patrol car.

Maria, on the other hand, has several ounces of marijuana packaged up in small little baggies, about a dozen rolled joints, and a roll of cash in $10s and $20s. Both girls have committed acts mala prohibita, as possession, and use of marijuana is prohibited by law in their jurisdiction.

In this example of mala prohibita acts, the severity of their specific crimes is different, however, as Maria clearly has intent to sell drugs to other people. Instead of being returned to her parents by the police, Maria is booked into the county jail, and charged with possession of an illegal substance, intent to sell or distribute drugs, and a host of other drug-related charges.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • 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.
  • Intent – A resolve to perform an act for a specific purpose; a resolution to use a particular means to a specific end.
  • Jurisdiction – The legal authority to hear legal cases and make judgments; the geographical region of authority to enforce justice.