Moral Turpitude

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A phrase that describes wicked, deviant behavior constituting an immoral, unethical, or unjust departure from ordinary social standards such that it would shock a community.

In criminal law, the law sorts criminal activity into categories of crime either involving or not involving moral turpitude. The phrase moral turpitude itself has not been clearly delineated by courts, owing in part to amorphous, relative, and various conceptions of morality. Courts however, such as in United States ex rel. Manzanella v. Zimmerman, have commonly quoted the following in order to describe conduct that involves moral turpitude: “An act of baseness, vileness, or depravity in the private and social duties which a man owes to his fellow men, or to society in general, contrary to the accepted and customary rule of right and duty between man and man.”

In legal ethics, an attorney who commits an act of moral turpitude is no longer deemed fit to practice law and may face sanctions. For example, an attorney may be disbarred for committing an act of moral turpitude in California, under Standard 2.11, Title IV of the Rules of Procedure of the State Bar of California. Per Standard 2.15(a), if an attorney is convicted of a felony where either the offense or the facts and circumstances of the offense involved moral turpitude, the attorney is subject to summary disbarment. Standard 2.15(b) stipulates sanctions of either disbarment or actual suspension if an attorney was convicted of a misdemeanor involving moral turpitude.

[Last updated in June of 2020 by the Wex Definitions Team]