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Wanton or wontons. What is moral turpitude?

Wanton wontons.  Would you trust an attorney who deliberately skipped out without paying for her soup at the local Peking Dragon restaurant?  What is moral turpitude?  Is it like pornography?  Would you know it when you see it?

Many years ago, in an effort to streamline the process, California adopted a statutory means of handling attorneys charged with a crime and the Business and Professions Code was amended to allow for swifter handling of disciplinary proceedings that arise because of a criminal act of an attorney.  Generally speaking, the State Bar is loosely monitoring every criminal proceeding in California (and other states when notified) where the defendant is a lawyer.  Every prosecuting agency (district attorney, city attorney, assistant attorney general, etc.) is required to notify the State Bar when their office files a criminal charge against an attorney, or as soon as it’s learned that the defendant is an attorney. Also, every court has a clerk and one of the duties of a court clerk became to report to the State Bar within 48 hours after an attorney is convicted of a crime.  If the crime is one that involves moral turpitude, the statutes governing attorney discipline provide that the attorney shall be disbarred or suspended.

So besides being a Harlequin romance paperback plot requirement, what is moral turpitude?  In attorney disciplinary proceedings it usually is described as a “wanton disregard of the duties owed to another”; an “act of baseness, vileness or depravity in the private and social duties which a man [or woman] owes to his [or her] fellow [individuals], or to society in general, contrary to the accepted and customary rule of right and duty between man and man” … “not a concept that can be described with precision”. That definition usually is reduced to any dishonest or immoral act.  So crimes like theft or ones involving lying or cheating are generally viewed as ones involving moral turpitude, just like murder or gross mayhem can generally be agreed  to violate that “customary rule of right and duty”.

It’s the cases where state of mind is not obvious and moral turpitude is not readily apparent that may still require a hearing to be held to determine whether the facts and circumstances surrounding the crime involve moral turpitude or other misconduct warranting discipline.

Mara J. Mamet

mmamet@caranclaw.com