Case law on moral turpitude

Moral turpitude has been defined as everything which is done contrary to justice, modesty, or good morals; an act of baseness, vileness or depravity in the private and social duties which a man owes his fellowmen, or to society in general,[a] contrary to the accepted and customary rule of right and duty between man and woman, or conduct contrary to justice, honesty, modesty, or good morals.[b] Not every criminal act, however, involves moral turpitude. It is for this reason that the Court has to determine as to what crime involves moral turpitude."[c]

In the concurring opinion of Justice Arturo Brion in one case (April 28, 2009. . Edgar Y. Teves v. COMELEC. 604 Phil. 717), he explained that the term "moral turpitude" first took root under the United States (U.S.) immigration laws.[1] Its history can be traced back as far as the 17th century when the States of Virginia and Pennsylvania enacted the earliest immigration resolutions excluding criminals from America, in response to the British government's policy of sending convicts to the colonies. State legislators at that time strongly suspected that Europe was deliberately exporting its human liabilities.[2]

In the U.S., the term "moral turpitude" first appeared in the Immigration Act of March 3, 1891, which directed the exclusion of persons who have been convicted of a felony or other infamous crime or misdemeanor involving moral turpitude; this marked the first time the U.S. Congress used the term "moral turpitude" in immigration laws.[3] Since then, the presence of moral turpitude has been used as a test in a variety of situations, including legislation governing the disbarment of attorneys and the revocation of medical licenses. Moral turpitude also has been judicially used as a criterion in disqualifying and impeaching witnesses, in determining the measure of contribution between joint tortfeasors, and in deciding whether a certain language is slanderous.[4]

In 1951, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on the constitutionality of the term "moral turpitude" in Jordan v. De George.[5] The case presented only one question: whether conspiracy to defraud the U.S. of taxes on distilled spirits is a crime involving moral turpitude within the meaning of Section 19 (a) of the Immigration Act of 1919 (Immigration Act). Sam De George, an Italian immigrant was convicted twice of conspiracy to defraud the U.S. government of taxes on distilled spirits. Subsequently, the Board of Immigration Appeals ordered De George's deportation on the basis of the Immigration Act provision that allows the deportation of aliens who commit multiple crimes involving moral turpitude. De George argued that he should not be deported because his tax evasion crimes did not involve moral turpitude. The U.S. Supreme Court, through Chief Justice Vinzon, disagreed, finding that "under an unbroken course of judicial decisions, the crime of conspiring to defraud the U.S. is a crime involving moral turpitude."[6] Notably, the Court determined that fraudulent conduct involved moral turpitude without exception:
Whatever the phrase "involving moral turpitude" may mean in peripheral cases, the decided cases make it plain that crimes in which fraud was an ingredient have always been regarded as involving moral Fraud is the touchstone by which this case should be We therefore decide that Congress sufficiently forewarned respondent that the statutory consequence of twice conspiring to defraud the United States is deportation. [7]
Significantly, the U.S. Congress has never exactly defined what amounts to a "crime involving moral turpitude." The legislative history of statutes containing the moral turpitude standard indicates that Congress left the interpretation of the term to U.S. courts and administrative agencies.[8] In the absence of legislative history as interpretative aid, American courts have resorted to the dictionary definition - "the last resort of the baffled judge."[9] The most common definition of moral turpitude is similar to one found in the early editions of Black's Law Dictionary:
[An] act of baseness, vileness, or the depravity in private and social duties which man owes to his fellow man, or to society in general, contrary to the accepted and customary rule of right and duty between man and man. xxx Act or behavior that gravely violates moral sentiment or accepted moral standards of community and is a morally culpable quality held to be present in some criminal offenses as distinguished from others. xxx The quality of a crime involving grave infringement of the moral sentiment of the community as distinguished from statutory mala prohibita.[10]
In the Philippines, the term moral turpitude was first introduced in 1901 in Act No. 190, otherwise known as the Code of Civil Actions and Special Proceedings.[11] The Act provided that a member of the bar may be removed or suspended from his office as lawyer by the Supreme Court upon conviction of a crime involving moral turpitude.[12] Subsequently, the term "moral turpitude" has been employed in statutes governing disqualifications of notaries public,[13] priests and ministers in solemnizing marriages,[14] registration to military service,[15] exclusion[16] and naturalization of aliens,[17] discharge of the accused to be a state witness,[18] admission to the bar,[19] suspension and removal of elective local officials,[20] and disqualification of persons from running for any elective local position.[21]In Re Basa,[22] a 1920 case, provided the first instance for the Court to define the term moral turpitude in the context of Section 21 of the Code of Civil Procedure on the disbarment of a lawyer for conviction of a crime involving moral turpitude. Carlos S. Basa, a lawyer, was convicted of the crime of abduction with consent. The sole question presented was whether the crime of abduction with consent, as punished by Article 446 of the Penal Code of 1887, involved moral turpitude. The Court, finding no exact definition in the statutes, turned to Bouvier's Law Dictionary for guidance and held:
"Moral turpitude," it has been said, "includes everything which is done contrary to justice, honesty, modesty, or good morals." (Bouvier's Law Dictionary, cited by numerous courts.) Although no decision can be found which has decided the exact question, it cannot admit of doubt that crimes of this character involve moral turpitude. The inherent nature of the act is such that it is against good morals and the accepted rule of right conduct.
Thus, early on, the Philippines followed the American lead and adopted a general dictionary definition, opening the way for a case-to-case approach in determining whether a crime involves moral turpitude.

Through the years, the Court has never significantly deviated from the Black's Law Dictionary definition of moral turpitude as "an act of baseness, vileness, or depravity in the private duties which a man owes his fellow men, or to society in general, contrary to the accepted and customary rule of right and duty between man and woman, or conduct contrary to justice, honesty, modesty, or good morals."[23] This definition is more specific than that used in In re Vinzon[24] where the term moral turpitude was considered as encompassing "everything which is done contrary to justice, honesty, or good morals."[25]

In the U.S., these same definitions have been highly criticized for their vagueness and ambiguity.[26] In Jordan, Justice Jackson noted that "except for the Court's [majority opinion], there appears to be a universal recognition that we have here an undefined and undefinable standard."[27] Thus, the phrase "crimes involving moral turpitude" has been described as "vague," "nebulous," "most unfortunate," and even "bewildering." [28]

Criticisms of moral turpitude as an inexactly defined concept are not unwarranted. First, the current definition of the term is broad. It can be stretched to include most kinds of wrongs in society -- a result that the Legislature could not have intended. This Court itself concluded in IRRI v. NLRC[29] that moral turpitude "is somewhat a vague and indefinite term, the meaning of which must be left to the process of judicial inclusion or exclusion as the cases are reached" - once again confirming, as late as 1993 in IRRI, our case-by-case approach in determining the crimes involving moral turpitude.

Second, the definition also assumes the existence of a universally recognized code for socially acceptable behavior -- the "private and social duties which man owes to his fellow man, or to society in general"; moral turpitude is an act violating these duties. The problem is that the definition does not state what these duties are, or provide examples of acts which violate them. Instead, it provides terms such as "baseness," "vileness," and "depravity," which better describe moral reactions to an act than the act itself. In essence, they are "conclusory but non-descriptive."[30] To be sure, the use of morality as a norm cannot be avoided, as the term "moral turpitude" contains the word "moral" and its direct connotation of right and wrong. "Turpitude," on the other hand, directly means "depravity" which cannot be appreciated without considering an act's degree of being right or wrong. Thus, the law, in adopting the term "moral turpitude," necessarily adopted a concept involving notions of morality - standards that involve a good measure of subjective consideration and, in terms of certainty and fixity, are far from the usual measures used in law.[31]

Third, as a legal standard, moral turpitude fails to inform anyone of what it requires.[32] It has been said that the loose terminology of moral turpitude hampers uniformity since ... [i]t is hardly to be expected that a word which baffle judges will be more easily interpreted by laymen.[33] This led Justice Jackson to conclude in Jordan that "moral turpitude offered judges no clearer guideline than their own consciences, inviting them to condemn all that we personally disapprove and for no better reason than that we disapprove it."[34] This trait, however, cannot be taken lightly, given that the consequences of committing a crime involving moral turpitude can be severe.

Crimes Categorized as Crimes Involving Moral Turpitude[35]

Since the early 1920 case of In re Basa,[36] the Court has maintained its case-by-case categorization of crimes on the basis of moral turpitude and has labeled specific crimes as necessarily involving moral turpitude. The following is a list, not necessarily complete, of the crimes adjudged to involve moral turpitude:
  1. Abduction with consent[37]
  2. Bigamy[38]
  3. Concubinage[39]
  4. Smuggling[40]
  5. Rape[41]
  6. Estafa through falsification of a document[42]
  7. Attempted Bribery[43]
  8. Profiteering[44]
  9. Robbery[45]
  10. Murder, whether consummated or attempted[46]
  11. Estafa[47]
  12. Theft[48]
  13. Illicit Sexual Relations with a Fellow Worker[49]
  14. Violation of BP Bldg. 22[50]
  15. Falsification of Document[51]
  16. Intriguing against Honor[52]
  17. Violation of the Anti-Fencing Law[53]
  18. Violation of Dangerous Drugs Act of 1972 (Drug-pushing)[54]
  19. Perjury[55]
  20. Forgery[56]
  21. Direct Bribery[57]
  22. Frustrated Homicide[58]
Zari v. Flores[59] is one case that has provided jurisprudence its own list of crimes involving moral turpitude, namely: adultery, concubinage, rape, arson, evasion of income tax, barratry, bigamy, blackmail, bribery, criminal conspiracy to smuggle opium, dueling, embezzlement, extortion, forgery, libel, making fraudulent proof of loss on insurance contract, murder, mutilation of public records, fabrication of evidence, offenses against pension laws, perjury, seduction under the promise of marriage, estafa, falsification of public document, and estafa thru falsification of public document.[60]

Crimes Categorized as Crimes Not Involving Moral Turpitude[61]

The Court, on the other hand, has also had the occasion to categorically rule that certain crimes do not involve moral turpitude, namely:
  1. Minor transgressions of the law (i.e., conviction for speeding)[62]
  2. Illegal recruitment[63]
  3. Slight physical injuries and carrying of deadly weapon (Illegal possession of firearms)[64]
  4. 4. Indirect Contempt[65]

[a] PAL v. NLRC, G.R. No. 123294, October 20, 2010, 634 SCRA 18. 41-42.

[b] RE: SC Decision dated May 20. 2008 in G.R. No. 161455 under Rule 139-B of the Rules of Court v. Pactolin, A.C. No. 7940, April 24, 2012, 670 SCRA 366, 371.

[c] Teves v. COMELEC, G.R. No. 180363, April 28, 2009. 587 SCRA 1, 12; citing Dela Torre v. Commission on Elections, 327 Phil. 1144, 1150-1151 (1996).

[1] Jordan v. De George, 341 U.S. 223, 227 (1951).

[2] Brian C. Harms, Redefining "Crimes of Moral Turpitude": A Proposal to Congress, 15 GEO. IMMIGR. L.J. 259, 261 (2001).

[3] Id.

[4] Supra note 1, p. 227.

[5] Id.

[6] Id. , p. 229.

[7] Id. . p. 232.

[8] Derrick Moore, "Crimes Involving Moral Turpitude": Why the Void-For-Vagueness Argument is Still Available and Meritorious, 41 CORNELL INT'L L.J. 813, 816 (2008).

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Effective September 1, 1901.

[12] Now RULES OF COURT, Rule 138, Section 27.

[13] ACT NO. 2711, Section 234, March 10, 1917.

[14] ACT NO. 3613, Section 45, December 4, 1929.

[15] COMMONWEALTH ACT No. 1, Section 57, December 21, 1935.

[16] COMMONWEALTH ACT No. 473, Section 4, June 17, 1939.

[17] COMMONWEALTH ACT No. 613, Section 29, August 26, 1940.


[19] RULES OF COURT, Rule 138, Section 2.

[20] BATAS PAMBANSA BLG. 337, Section 60, February 10, 1983; REPUBLIC ACT NO. 7160, Section 60, January 1, 1992.

[21] BATAS PAMBANSA BLG. 881, Section 12, December 3, 1985; REPUBLIC ACT NO. 7160, Section 40, January 1, 1992.

[22] 41 Phil. 275, 276 (1920).

[23] Dela Torre v. Commission on Elections, G.R. No. 121592, July 5, 1996, 258 SCRA 483, 487, citing Zari v. Flores, 94 SCRA 317, 323 (1979).

[24] G.R. No. 561, April 27, 1967, 19 SCRA 815.

[25] Cited in Rafael Christopher Yap, Bouncing Doctrine: Re-Examining the Supreme Court's Pronouncements of Batas Pambansa Blg. 22 as a Crime of Moral Turpitude (2006), p. 13 (unpublished J.D. thesis, Ateneo de Manila University, on file with the Professional Schools Library, Ateneo de Manila University).

[26] Supra note 8, p. 816.

[27] Supra note 1, p. 235.

[28] Supra note 8, p. 814.

[29] G.R. No. 97239, May 12, 1993, 221 SCRA 760.

[30] Nate Carter, Shocking The Conscience of Mankind: Using International Law To Define "Crimes Involving Moral Turpitude" In Immigration Law, 10 LEWIS & CLARK L. REV. 955, 959 (2006).

[31] A similar concept is "obscenity," whose standards have been in continuous development in U.S. Supreme Court rulings. See Roth v. United States; Albert v. California, 354 U.S. 476 (1957); Miller v. California, 413 U.S. 15 (1973) and Paris Adult Theatre I v. Slaton, 413 U.S. 49 (1973). Only a decade after Roth, Justice Harlan observed that "[t]he subject of obscenity has produced a variety of views among the members of the Court unmatched in any other course of constitutional adjudication." As evidence, Justice Harlan noted that in the thirteen obscenity cases decided in the decade after Roth, there were "a total of 55 separate opinions among the Justices;" Geoffrey R. Stone et al., Constitutional Law, 1255, (1996 ed.) citing Interstate Circuit, Inc. v. Dallas, 390 U.S. 676, 704-705, 705 n.1 (1968) (Harlan, J., dissenting).

[32] Supra note 30, p. 959.

[33] Supra note 8, p. 813, citing Note, Crimes Involving Moral Turpitude, 43 HARV. L. REV. 117, 121 (1930).

[34] Supra note 1, p. 242.

[35] Supra note 25, pp. 20-21.

[36] Supra note 22.

[37] Id.

[38] In Re Marcelino Lontok, 43 Phil. 293 (1922).

[39] In Re Juan C. Isada, 60 Phil 915 (1934); Macarrubo v. Macarrubo, A.C. No. 6148, February 27, 2004, 424 SCRA 42 citing Laguitan v. Tinio, A.C. No. 3049, December 4, 1989, 179 SCRA 837.

[40] In Re Atty. Tranquilino Rovero, 92 Phil. 128 (1952).

[41] Mondano v. Silvosa, 97 Phil. 143 (1955).

[42] In the Matter of Eduardo A. Abesamis, 102 Phil.1182 (1958).

[43] In Re Dalmacio De Los Angeles, 106 Phil 1 (1959).

[44] Tak Ng v. Republic of the Philippines, 106 Phil. 727 (1959).

[45] Paras v. Vailoces, Adm. Case No. 439, April 12, 1961, 1 SCRA 954.

[46] Can v. Galing, G.R. No. L-54258, November 27, 1987, 155 SCRA 663 citing In Re Gutierrez, Adm. Case No. L-363, July 31, 1962, 5 SCRA 661.

[47] In Re: Atty. Isidro P. Vinzon, Admin. Case No. 561, April 27, 1967, 19 SCRA 815.

[48] Philippine Long Distance Telephone Company v. National Labor Relations Commission, G.R. No. L-63652 October 18, 1988, 166 SCRA 422.

[49] Id.

[50] People v. Tuanda, A.M. No. 3360, January 30, 1990, 181 SCRA 692; Paolo C. Villaber v. Commission on Elections, G.R. No.148326, November 15, 2001, 369 SCRA 126; Selwyn F. Lao v. Atty. Robert W. Medel, A.C. No. 5916, July 1, 2003, 405 SCRA 227.

[51] University of the Philippines v. Civil Service Commission, G.R. No. 89454, April 20, 1992, 208 SCRA 174.

[52] Betguen v. Masangcay, A.M. No. P-93-822, December 1, 1994, 238 SCRA 475.

[53] Supra note 23 at 483.

[54] Office of the Court Administrator v. Librado, A.M. No. P-94-1089, August 22, 1996, 260 SCRA 624.

[55] People v. Sorrel, G.R. No. 119332, August 29, 1997, 278 SCRA 368.

[56] Campilan v. Campilan Jr., A.M. No. MTJ-96-1100, April 24, 2002, 381 SCRA 494.

[57] Magno v. Commission on Elections, G.R. No. 147904, October 4, 2002, 390 SCRA 495.

[58] Soriano v. Dizon, A.C. No. 6792, January 25, 2006, 480 SCRA 1.

[59] Adm. No. (2170-MC) P-1356, November 21, 1979, 94 SCRA 317, 323.

[60] Supra note 25 at 21.

[61] Id.

[62] Ng Teng Lin v. Republic, 103 Phil. 484 (1959).

[63] Court Administrator v. San Andres, A.M. No. P-89-345, May 31, 1991, 197 SCRA 704.

[64] People v. Yambot, G.R. No. 120350, October 13, 2000, 343 SCRA 20.

[65] Garcia v. De Vera, A.C. No. 6052, December 11, 2003, 418 SCRA 27.