How a Crime Involving Moral Turpitude Can Affect Immigration Status

For a non-U.S. citizen, a criminal charge could lead to more than incarceration and a fine. It could also affect their status in this country. As discussed in the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), being convicted of or even admitting to what's referred to as a crime involving moral turpitude (CIMT) can lead to inadmissibility or removability.

Several factors will determine what consequences the non-citizen may face, including:

  • Their immigration status,
  • The number of prior convictions they have (if any),
  • The potential sentence for the offense,
  • The actual sentence imposed, and
  • The date of the alleged crime.

In this blog, we will explore what a CIMT is, when committing one may be grounds for inadmissibility or deportability, and how courts determine whether an offense is a CIMT.

What Is a Crime Involving Moral Turpitude?

CIMTs can have severe impacts on a non-citizen's future because committing one can block admission to the U.S. or result in deportation. Thus, non-citizens must understand what the term refers to. Yet, a "crime involving moral turpitude" is a nebulous concept, as no clear definition exists in federal statutes or immigration law.

Generally, courts maintain that a CIMT is "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" (Medina v. United States, 259 F.3d 220, 227 (4th Cir. 2001), Matter of Danesh)). Essentially, this definition means that an act demonstrating a person's ill will or evil intent and engaged in knowingly, intentionally, or recklessly may be considered a CIMT.

Because of the broad definition of CIMTs, a range of criminal conduct falls under this term.

The categories of offenses that can be considered CIMTs include, but are not limited to:

We'll discuss in detail later how courts determine whether a crime is a CIMT. For now, let's look at the different ways these offenses can affect a non-citizen's status.

CIMTs and Inadmissibility

Inadmissibility applies to individuals who have not been legally admitted to the U.S. Thus, if they are involved in a CIMT-related matter, their application for something such as a visa or green card may be denied.

Under 8 U.S.C. § 1182(a)(2)(A)(i), a non-citizen may be inadmissible if they are convicted of or admit to committing a CIMT. Note that the law does not attach any time limit or number of offenses. Thus, regardless of when the violation occurred, even if it was just one crime, the individual may be ineligible for admission to or relief in the U.S.

It is important to recognize that grounds for inadmissibility are not limited to situations where the non-citizen was convicted. The law specifically states that merely admitting to the crime is sufficient to block entry into this country.

Certain criteria must be met for a non-citizen to have "admitted" to a crime:

  • The elements of the offense must have been clearly explained to them,
  • They must have admitted to engaging in conduct related to those elements, and
  • Their admission must have been given freely and voluntarily

A couple of situations exist in which a CIMT conviction or admission may not lead to inadmissibility.

These include:

  • The youthful offender exception: A non-citizen may not be deemed inadmissible if they committed the offense when they were under 18 years of age, and the incident happened more than 5 years before applying for a certain status. This exception applies when a juvenile's case is transferred to adult court. Juvenile court dispositions are not considered convictions for immigration purposes.
  • The petty offense exception: This exception applies when the non-citizen is convicted of only one CIMT for which the maximum potential penalty is imprisonment for no more than 1 year. Additionally, the non-citizen must have been sentenced to 6 months or less in jail.

CIMTs and Deportability

A non-citizen involved in a CIMT-related matter may face deportation if they are lawfully in the U.S. In other words, if they have a visa or were granted certain forms of relief, their status may be in jeopardy if convicted of a crime involving moral turpitude.

Unlike the inadmissibility grounds, the deportation grounds do not apply when a non-citizen admits to engaging in certain criminal conduct. It is applicable only upon a conviction.

Under 8 U.S.C. § 1227(a)(2)(A), two situations exist in which a non-citizen may be deported for a CIMT conviction:

  1. They were convicted of the offense within 5 years after being admitted to the U.S. (unless they were granted lawful permanent resident status under section 1255(j), then it's 10 years after being admitted), and the crime may be penalized by imprisonment of 1 year or more. The 5-year clock begins ticking after an immigration officer authorizes the non-citizen to lawfully enter the U.S. If the CIMT is committed after the 5 years or incarceration is less than 1 year, the non-citizen should not be deportable.
  2. They were convicted of 2 or more CIMTs regardless of when the offenses occurred. The crimes must not have been a part of the same incident. In other words, they must be distinct acts committed either on different dates or in different periods of time, even if separated by just a few hours.

Definition of a Conviction for Immigration Purposes

A CIMT conviction triggers both the inadmissibility and deportability grounds. But what is considered a conviction?

Immigration law has its own definition of "conviction" that may be separate from how state laws refer to it. Under 8 U.S.C. § 1101(48)(A), a conviction is a "formal judgment of guilt." Or, if adjudication was withheld after a guilty verdict or plea, the judge "ordered some sort of punishment, penalty, or restraint on the [non-citizen's] liberty." Additionally, for a non-citizen to have been convicted, the judgment must be final, and the individual must have no other options for appeal.

If the non-citizen was convicted, but the judgment was later vacated because of a substantial legal error, the conviction does not stand. In other words, the inadmissibility or deportability grounds would not apply.

Note, however, that an expunction does not remove the conviction for immigration purposes. Thus, even though the non-citizen's criminal record has been sealed or expunged, the individual may still be considered inadmissible or deportable.

How Courts Decide Whether a Crime Is a CIMT

When a non-citizen is charged with a crime, the offense isn't specifically labeled a CIMT. The court must determine whether it falls under this category. To do that, it will apply either the categorical or modified categorical approach.

With the categorical approach, the court will look at the elements of the crime and compare them with the elements of the generic federal offense. The court only considers whether the elements match. It is not concerned with the specific facts of the case. In other words, it is not looking at the conduct the non-citizen engaged in. If the elements match, the individual may be inadmissible or deported.

The modified categorical approach is similar to the categorical approach. It too compares the elements of the state statute to those of the federal. The difference here is that the analysis is concerned with situations where the state's statute is divisible, meaning the law specifies alternative types of prohibited conduct. The court will look at which element the non-citizen was convicted of to see if it matches the generic federal statute. Again, if there's a match, the inadmissibility or deportability grounds apply.

Schedule a Consultation with a Defense Attorney

Because the definition of CIMTs is broad and the legal landscape is ever-evolving, if you have been accused of a crime in or around Miami, it's crucial that you retain the services of a defense lawyer who understands criminal and immigration law.

At Hubbs Law Firm, our team has the knowledge, skills, and experience to aggressively defend you. We know a lot is at stake, which is why we are prepared to seek a favorable outcome on your behalf to protect your future.

Discuss your case with us by calling (305) 570-4802 or submitting an online contact form today.