Crimes of Moral Turpitude


Crimes of Moral Turpitude is a category of crimes that can have very serious immigration consequences, including deportation, inadmissibility, and disqualification from some forms of relief from removal in immigration proceedings. It is a vague term, and is not further defined in the immigration statutes. The detailed definition has been left to the courts on a case-by-case basis.  N. Tooby, J. Rollin & J. Foster, Crimes of Moral Turpitude (2008), hereinafter “Crimes of Moral Turpitude,” and this website contain the world’s largest organized collection of information on crimes involving moral turpitude, and their consequences.



Crimes of Moral Turpitude Definition


While there is no statutory definition of crime of moral turpitude, over 100 years of case law exists determining whether a given criminal conviction is considered a CMT.  The definition largely turns on the intent[1] involved in committing the criminal act,[2] and in whether the criminal act is considered malum prohibitum (bad because it is prohibited) or malum in se (bad in and of itself).[3]  The gravity of the offense is often not considered relevant.[4]  The definition also, theoretically, can change as time passes and social mores develop and change.[5]  The offense must be a crime to be a crime of moral turpitude.[6] The available legislative history reveals that the term “moral turpitude” first appeared in the federal immigration laws in 1891, but the term has never been legislatively defined.[7]


Courts have held that moral turpitude “refers generally to conduct that shocks the public conscience as being inherently base, vile, or depraved, contrary to the rules of morality and the duties owed between man and man, either one’s fellow man or society in general.”[8]  One common definition  applied by the courts is “an act of baseness, vileness, or depravity.”[9]  Some cases define an act of moral turpitude as one which “grievously offends the moral code of mankind.”[10]




Crimes of Moral Turpitude Immigration Consequences


There are three chief immigration consequences of conviction or admission of one or more crimes of moral turpitude:

  1. Conviction or admission of one or more CMTs will, under certain circumstances, trigger inadmissibility.  See Crimes of Moral Turpitude §§ 4.1-4.8.
  2. One CMT conviction will, under certain circumstances, trigger deportability.  See Crimes of Moral Turpitude §§ 5.1-5.11.
  3. Two or more CMT convictions will, under other circumstances, trigger deportability.  See Crimes of Moral Turpitude §§ 5.12-5.15.

Conviction or admission of a CMT may also bar a noncitizen from demonstrating the “Good Moral Character” required for various immigration benefits, such as naturalization.  See Crimes of Moral Turpitude § 3.14.


Under certain limited circumstances, even if there is no conviction, a noncitizen’s admission of having committed a crime involving moral turpitude may trigger inadmissibility (see Crimes of Moral Turpitude § 4.4), or disqualify the noncitizen from certain forms of relief.  Merely committing a CMT, however, will not make a noncitizen deportable.


Noncitizens convicted of crimes of moral turpitude are, in general, given more lenient treatment under the immigration law than those convicted of aggravated felonies or controlled substances offenses.  Most grounds of relief from removal may waive CMTs.  See Crimes of Moral Turpitude Chapter 3, infra.  A given criminal conviction may qualify as both a CMT and an aggravated felony and/or controlled substances offense, triggering different immigration consequences than those triggered by a CMT.


Depending on a noncitizen’s immigration status and history, conviction or admission of commission of even a single CMT could mean ineligibility for all forms of relief and mandatory deportation.  Therefore, it is always important to look at the conviction or admission in this context to make an accurate determination of the exact immigration consequences of the CMT.




Solutions to Aggravated Felony Problems


Immigration lawyers must learn the rules so they can argue in immigration court that a given conviction is not a crime of moral turpitude, and so avoid the immigration consequences of a conviction of a crime of moral turpitude.  These arguments are given in Crimes of Moral Turpitude.


Immigration lawyers must also check the record of conviction very carefully to see if the original criminal lawyer succeeded in obtaining a non-moral turpitude conviction in the first place.


Finally, where a conviction does qualify as a crime of moral turpitude, the immigrant may need to seek post-conviction relief in immigration court, so the moral turpitude conviction can be vacated on a ground of legal invalidity, which will eliminate the conviction and avoid its adverse immigration consequences.  See N. Tooby, California Post-Conviction Relief for Immigrants (2009); N. Tooby, Post-Conviction Relief for Immigrants (National Edition 2004).


This office can assist immigrants who are charged with, or have been convicted of, an aggravated felony in several ways:



We provide the most extensive collection of information on what is and is not an crime of moral turpitude in the world, in our newsletters, practice manuals, website, and seminars.



We can offer a consultation, and examine the records from the criminal court, to give a reliable opinion on whether a given conviction is or is not a crime of moral turpitude.  We can also offer arguments that an immigration lawyer can use in immigration procedures to argue that the conviction does not qualify as a crime of moral turpitude.


Elimination of the Conviction. 

If a conviction is causing damage as a crime of moral turpitude, we can seek post-conviction relief anywhere in the country to reopen the criminal case, vacate the aggravated felony conviction, and obtain a dismissal or alternative plea bargain that does not cause these damaging immigration consequences. Learn more about our Legal Services.




Crime of Moral Turpitude Resources


N. Tooby, J. Rollin & J. Foster, Crimes of Moral Turpitude (2008), contains the world’s largest collection of information concerning this subject.  The aim of this volume is to aid immigration and criminal counsel by gathering comprehensive information concerning a number of topics:

  • Various immigration consequences of crimes of moral turpitude,

  • Principles used by immigration and federal courts to determine when a conviction is, and is not, considered a crime involving moral turpitude, and

  • Immigration and federal court decisions regarding the moral turpitude, or lack of it, inherent in different state, federal, and foreign criminal offenses.

In researching this book, we reviewed and summarized all decisions of the Attorney General, Board of Immigration Appeals, and all federal courts, including the United States Supreme Court, all circuit courts of appeal, and all district courts, that state what offenses are and are not crimes of moral turpitude from roughly 1940 to the present.  This was done by searching electronically for the phrase “moral turpitude,” within all BIA cases from 1 I. & N. Dec. 1 to the present, and all reported federal cases.  The most important moral turpitude decisions predating 1940 were also included. About 2000 decisions were reviewed during the research for this book, which was completed on March 1, 2008. 


N. Tooby & J. Rollin, Safe Havens: How to Identify and Construct Non-Deportable Convictions (2005).  This volume contains detailed instructions on how to avoid deportable crime of moral turpitude convictions in criminal court by carefully constructing the record of conviction, and thousands of arguments immigration lawyers can use to obtain immigration court rulings that a given conviction is not a crime of moral turpitude conviction. 


Our office keeps these books current on a monthly basis by posting case law updates on, organized by section number (e.g., § 5.21) for ease of reference. Get access to these case law updates by either purchasing one of our practice manuals (allows you to view updates for individual practice manuals purchased) or by subscribing to our Premium Resources (allows you to view updates for ALL of our practice manuals).



[1] See Crimes of Moral Turpitude §§ 8.3-8.13, 8.23.
[2] See Crimes of Moral Turpitude § 8.19.
[3] See Crimes of Moral Turpitude §§ 8.2, 8.22.
[4] See Crimes of Moral Turpitude § 8.20.
[5] See Crimes of Moral Turpitude § 8.21.
[6] See Crimes of Moral Turpitude § 8.19.
[7] See S.Rep. No. 1515, 81st Cong., 2d Sess. 350 (1950); C. Gordon, S. Mailman & S. Yale-Loehr, Immigration Law and Procedure § 71.05[1][a], 71-121 (Supp. 1993).
[8] Medina v. United States, 259 F.3d 220, 227 (4th Cir. 2001), quoting Matter of Danesh, 19 I. & N. Dec. 669, 670 (BIA 1988).
[9] See Gordon, supra, § 71.05[1][d][i]; United States v. Smith, 420 F.2d 428, 431 (5th Cir. 1970); Franklin v. INS, 72 F.3d 571(8th Cir. 1995); Wing v. United States, 46 F.2d 755 (7th Cir. 1931); Tutrone v. Shaughnessy, 160 F.Supp. 433 (S.D.N.Y. 1958); Matter of Franklin, 20 I. & N. Dec. 867 (BIA 1994), aff’d sub nom., Matter of Mueller, 11 I. & N. Dec. 268 (BIA 1965).  See also Matter of Short, 20 I. & N. Dec. 136, 139(BIA 1989) (“Moral turpitude is a nebulous concept, which refers generally to conduct that shocks the public conscience”).
[10] See Coykendall v. Skrmetta, 22 F.2d 120  (5th Cir. 1927); United States v. Carrollo, 30 F.Supp. 3 (D. Mo. 1931); United States ex rel. De George v. Jordan, 183 F.2d 768 (7th Cir. 1950), rev’d on other grounds, 341 U.S. 223 (1951).