What is a Crime Involving Moral Turpitude?

In order to become a US citizen, one must generally have good moral character. This requirement can be muddied by the fact that some applicants have committed crimes but are unsure which crimes disqualify them from citizenship. An applicant (whether for green card or citizenship) can be denied and sometimes deported depending on the crime he or she was convicted for. 

This article will discuss what is a "conviction" and a "crime involving moral turpitude" as it relates to immigration law purposes.

Definition of Crime Involving Moral Turpitude

Case law is the primary authority on what is or is not a CIMT. Generally however, a CIMT "refers to conduct which is inherently base, vile, or depraved, contrary to the accepted rules of morality and the duties owed to persons or society in general." See Matter of Flores , 17 I&N, Dec. 225 (BIA 1980).

To determine whether the crime is a CIMT, one must look to the language of the statute itself and not the actions of the applicant. The statute which the applicant is convicted under may be a CIMT if the statute contains elements of moral turpitude. Furthermore, simply because the statute says its violation is a CIMT does not make it so.

Determining whether a conviction is a CIMT or not is intentionally vague. Convictions vary state by state because the each state words their statutes differently. In other words, what may be a CIMT in one state, may not be a CIMT in another.

A list of all CIMT would not only be exhaustive but also incomplete, as they can vary according by the state involved. However, all CIMT generally share common elements: fraud, larceny and an intent to harm persons or things.

Petty Offense Exception

There is an exception to the above CIMT bar, namely the petty offense exception. 

An applicant who convicts a CIMT, but it is a petty offense, will be excluded from the CIMT bar. A petty offense is defined as a crime  for which the maximum penalty possible for the crime does not exceed imprisonment for one year and , if there is a conviction, the term of imprisonment does not exceed six months, regardless of suspension. The applicant must meet both requirements to receive the exception. 

Definition of Conviction

Similar to the state-by-state CIMT analysis, the definition of "conviction" also varies between states.  Section 101(a)(48)(A) of the Immigration and Nationality Act defines “conviction” as:

•  a judge or jury has found the alien guilty or the alien entered a plea of guilty or nolo contendere or has admitted sufficient facts to warrant a finding of guilt, and 

• the judge has ordered some form of punishment penalty, or restraint on the alien’s liberty to be imposed.
It is important to note that simply confessing guilt and an imposed punishment may trigger a "conviction" for immigration purposes.