We have heard of the phrase “conviction of a crime involving moral turpitude.” So, what exactly does moral turpitude really mean? Let us dig deep into its historical context.

I. Historical Roots

The term moral turpitude first took root under the United States (U.S.) immigration laws. 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 governments policy of sending convicts to the colonies. State legislators at that time strongly suspected that Europe was deliberately exporting its human liabilities. 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. 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.

In 1951, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on the constitutionality of the term moral turpitude in Jordan v. De George. 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 Georges 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. 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 turpitude.xxx Fraud is the touchstone by which this case should be judged.xxx We therefore decide that Congress sufficiently forewarned respondent that the statutory consequence of twice conspiring to defraud the United States is deportation.

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. In the absence of legislative history as interpretative aid, American courts have resorted to the dictionary definition the last resort of the baffled judge. The most common definition of moral turpitude is similar to one found in the early editions of Blacks 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.

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. 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. Subsequently, the term moral turpitude has been employed in statutes governing disqualifications of notaries public, priests and ministers in solemnizing marriages, registration to military service, exclusion and naturalization of aliens, discharge of the accused to be a state witness, admission to the bar, suspension and removal of elective local officials, and disqualification of persons from running for any elective local position.

In Re Basa, 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 Bouviers 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.

II. Problems with the Definition of Moral Turpitude

Through the years, the Court has never significantly deviated from the Blacks 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. This definition is more specific than that used in In re Vinzon where the term moral turpitude was considered as encompassing everything which is done contrary to justice, honesty, or good morals.

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

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 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. 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 acts 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.

Third, as a legal standard, moral turpitude fails to inform anyone of what it requires. 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. 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. 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

Since the early 1920 case of In re Basa, 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
  2. Bigamy
  3. Concubinage
  4. Smuggling
  5. Rape
  6. Estafa through falsification of a document
  7. Attempted Bribery
  8. Profiteering
  9. Robbery
  10. Murder, whether consummated or attempted
  11. Estafa
  12. Theft
  13. Illicit Sexual Relations with a Fellow Worker
  14. Violation of BP 22
  15. Falsification of Document
  16. Intriguing against Honor
  17. Violation of the Anti-Fencing Law
  18. Violation of Dangerous Drugs Act of 1972 (Drug-pushing)
  19. Perjury
  20. Forgery
  21. Direct Bribery
  22. Frustrated Homicide

Zari v. Flores 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.

Crimes Categorized as Crimes Not Involving Moral Turpitude

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)
  2. Illegal recruitment
  3. Slight physical injuries and carrying of deadly weapon (Illegal possession of firearms)
  4. Indirect Contempt

III. Approaches and Standards.

Even a cursory examination of the above lists readily reveals that while the concept of moral turpitude does not have one specific definition that lends itself to easy and ready application, the Court has been fairly consistent in its understanding and application of the term and has not significantly deviated from what it laid down in In re Basa. The key element, directly derived from the word turpitude, is the standard of depravity viewed from a scale of right and wrong.

The application of this depravity standard can be made from at least three perspectives or approaches, namely: from the objective perspective of the act itself, irrespective of whether or not the act is a crime; from the perspective of the crime itself, as defined through its elements; and from the subjective perspective that takes into account the perpetrators level of depravity when he committed the crime.

The Court best expressed the first approach in Zari v. Flores where the Court saw the involvement of moral turpitude where an act is intrinsically immoral, regardless of whether it is punishable by law or not. The Court emphasized that moral turpitude goes beyond being merely mala prohibita; the act itself must be inherently immoral. Thus, this approach requires that the committed act itself be examined, divorced from its characterization as a crime.

A ruling that exemplifies this approach is that made in the U.S. case In The Matter of G— where, in considering gambling, it was held that:

Gambling has been in existence since time immemorial. Card playing for small stakes is a common accompaniment of social life; small bets on horse racing and the policy or numbers games are diversions of the masses. That such enterprises exist surreptitiously is a matter of common knowledge. Many countries permit it under a license system. In ancient times laws were enacted to discourage people from gambling on the theory that the State had first claim upon their time and energy, and at later dates anti-gambling laws were aimed especially at the activity as practiced by the working classes. Present-day movements to suppress gambling are also tinged with other considerations. In urban communities in the past few decades the purely religious opposition to gambling has tended to become less violent because certain activities, highly reputable according to prevailing social standards, have come more and more to resemble it. Prohibition against gambling has had something of a police rather than a truly penal character. At all times an important fact in arousing antagonism in gambling has been the association, almost inevitable, with sharp practice. In established societies more or less serious attempts are everywhere made, however, to prohibit or to regulate gambling in its more notorious forms.

It would appear that statutes permitting gambling, such as those under discussion, rest primarily on the theory that they are in the interest of public policy: that is to regulate and restrict any possible abuse, to obviate cheating and other corrupt practices that may result if uncontrolled.

From this discussion, the Court went on to conclude that gambling is a malum prohibitum that is not intrinsically evil and, thus, is not a crime involving moral turpitude.

With the same approach, but with a different result, is Office of the Court Administrator v. Librado, a case involving drug possession. Librado, a Deputy Sheriff in MTCC Iligan City was convicted of possession of shabu, a prohibited drug. The Office of the Court Administrator commenced an administrative case against him and he was subsequently suspended from office. In his subsequent plea for reinstatement, the Court strongly denounced drug possession as an especially vicious crime, one of the most pernicious evils that has ever crept into our society For those who become addicted to it not only slide into the ranks of the living dead, what is worse, they become a grave menace to the safety of law abiding members of society. The Court, apparently drawing on what society deems important, held that the use of drugs amounted to an act so inherently evil that no law was needed to deem it as such; it is an evil without need for a law to call it evil – an immoral act in itself regardless of whether it is punishable or not.

In People v. Yambot, the Court categorically ruled that the possession of a deadly weapon does not involve moral turpitude since the act of carrying a weapon by itself is not inherently wrong in the absence of a law punishing it. Likewise, the Court acknowledged in Court Administrator v. San Andres that illegal recruitment does not involve moral turpitude since it is not in itself an evil act being ordinarily an act in the ordinary course of business in the absence of the a law prohibiting it.

The second approach is to look at the act committed through its elements as a crime. In Paras v. Vailoces, the Court recognized that as a general rule, all crimes of which fraud is an element are looked on as involving moral turpitude. This is the same conclusion that the U.S. Supreme Court made in Jordan, i.e., that crimes requiring fraud or intent to defraud always involve moral turpitude.

Dela Torre v. Commission on Elections is a case in point that uses the second approach and is one case where the Court even dispensed with the review of facts and circumstances surrounding the commission of the crime since Dela Torre did not assail his conviction. Dela Torre was disqualified by the Comelec from running as Mayor of Cavinti, Laguna on the basis of his conviction for violation of Presidential Decree No. 1612, otherwise known as the Anti-Fencing Law. Dela Torre appealed to this Court to overturn his disqualification on the ground that the crime of fencing is not a crime involving moral turpitude. The Court ruled that moral turpitude is deducible from the third element. Actual knowledge by the fence of the fact that property received is stolen displays the same degree of malicious deprivation of ones rightful property as that which animated the robbery or theft which, by their very nature, are crimes of moral turpitude.

To be sure, the elements of the crime can be a critical factor in determining moral turpitude if the second approach is used in the crimes listed above as involving moral turpitude. In Villaber v. Commission on Elections,the Court, by analyzing the elements alone of the offense under Batas Pambansa Blg. 22, held that the presence of the second element manifest moral turpitude in that a drawer who issues an unfunded check deliberately reneges on his private duties he owes his fellow men or society in a manner contrary to accepted and customary rule of right and duty, justice, honesty or good morals. The same conclusion was reached by the Court in Magno v. Commission on Elections, when it ruled that direct bribery involves moral turpitude, thus:

Moral turpitude can be inferred from the third element. The fact that the offender agrees to accept a promise or gift and deliberately commits an unjust act or refrains from performing an official duty in exchange for some favors, denotes a malicious intent on the part of the offender to renege on the duties which he owes his fellowmen and society in general. Also, the fact that the offender takes advantage of his office and position is a betrayal of the trust reposed on him by the public. It is a conduct clearly contrary to the accepted rules of right and duty, justice, honesty and good morals. In all respects, direct bribery is a crime involving moral turpitude. [Emphasis supplied]

The third approach, the subjective approach, essentially takes the offender and his acts into account in light of the attendant circumstances of the crime: was he motivated by ill will indicating depravity? The Court apparently used this approach in Ao Lin v. Republic, a 1964 case, when it held that the use of a meter stick without the corresponding seal of the Internal Revenue Office by one who has been engaged in business for a long time, involves moral turpitude because it involves a fraudulent use of a meter stick, not necessarily because the Government is cheated of the revenue involved in the sealing of the meter stick, but because it manifests an evil intent on the part of the petitioner to defraud customers purchasing from him in respect to the measurement of the goods purchased.

In IRRI v. NLRC, the International Rice Research Institute terminated the employment contract of Nestor Micosa on the ground that he has been convicted of the crime of homicide a a crime involving moral turpitude. The Court refused to characterize the crime of homicide as one of moral turpitude in light of the circumstances of its commission. The Court ruled:

These facts show that Micosas intention was not to slay the victim but only to defend his person. The appreciation in his favor of the mitigating circumstances of self-defense and voluntary surrender, plus the total absence of any aggravating circumstances demonstrate that Micosas character and intentions were not inherently vile, immoral or unjust. [italics supplied].

The Court stressed, too, not only the subjective element, but the need for the appreciation of facts in considering whether moral turpitude exists an unavoidable step under the third approach. Thus, the Court explained:

This is not to say that all convictions of the crime of homicide do not involve moral turpitude. Homicide may or may not involve moral turpitude depending on the degree of the crime. Moral turpitude is not involved in every criminal act and is not shown by every known and intentional violation of statute, but whether any particular conviction involves moral turpitude may be a question of fact and frequently depends on all the surrounding circumstances. [Emphasis supplied]

In contrast, while IRRI refused to characterize the crime of homicide as one of moral turpitude, the recent case of Soriano v. Dizon held that based on the circumstances, the crime of frustrated homicide committed by the respondent involved moral turpitude. In Soriano, complainant Soriano filed a disbarment case against respondent Atty. Manuel Dizon alleging that the crime of frustrated homicide involves moral turpitude under the circumstances surrounding its commission, and was a sufficient ground for his disbarment under Section 27 of Rule 138 of the Rules of Court. The Court after noting the factual antecedents of IRRI held that

The present case is totally different. As the IBP correctly found, the circumstances clearly evince the moral turpitude of respondent and his unworthiness to practice law. Atty. Dizon was definitely the aggressor, as he pursued and shot complainant when the latter least expected it. The act of aggression shown by respondent will not be mitigated by the fact that he was hit once and his arm twisted by complainant. Under the circumstances, those were reasonable actions clearly intended to fend off the lawyers assault.

We also consider the trial courts finding of treachery as a further indication of the skewed morals of respondent. He shot the victim when the latter was not in a position to defend himself. In fact, under the impression that the assault was already over, the unarmed complainant was merely returning the eyeglasses of Atty. Dizon when the latter unexpectedly shot him. To make matters worse, respondent wrapped the handle of his gun with a handkerchief so as not to leave fingerprints. In so doing, he betrayed his sly intention to escape punishment for his crime.

The totality of the facts unmistakably bears the earmarks of moral turpitude. By his conduct, respondent revealed his extreme arrogance and feeling of self-importance. As it were, he acted like a god on the road, who deserved to be venerated and never to be slighted. Clearly, his inordinate reaction to a simple traffic incident reflected poorly on his fitness to be a member of the legal profession. His overreaction also evinced vindictiveness, which was definitely an undesirable trait in any individual, more so in a lawyer. In the tenacity with which he pursued complainant, we see not the persistence of a person who has been grievously wronged, but the obstinacy of one trying to assert a false sense of superiority and to exact revenge. [Emphasis supplied]

Laguitan v. Tinio, expressed in terms of the protection of the sanctity of marriage, also necessarily looked at the subjective element because the offenders concubinage involved an assault on the basic social institution of marriage. Another subjective element case, in terms of looking at the damage wrought by the offenders act, is People v. Jamero where the Court disregarded the appellants argument that the trial court erred in ordering the discharge of Inocencio Retirado from the Information in order to make him a state witness, since he has been previously convicted of the crime of malicious mischief a crime involving moral turpitude. The Court said:

In the absence of any evidence to show the gravity and the nature of the malicious mischief committed, We are not in a position to say whether or not the previous conviction of malicious mischief proves that accused had displayed the baseness, the vileness and the depravity which constitute moral turpitude. And considering that under paragraph 3 of Article 329 of the Revised Penal Code, any deliberate act (not constituting arson or other crimes involving destruction) causing damage in the property of another, may constitute the crime of malicious mischief, We should not make haste in declaring that such crime involves moral turpitude without determining, at least, the value of the property destroyed and/or the circumstances under which the act of destroying was committed.[85] [Emphasis supplied]

Thus, again, the need for a factual determination was considered necessary.

In sum, a survey of jurisprudence from the earliest case of In Re Basa to the recent case of Soriano v. Dizon shows that the Court has used varying approaches, but used the same standard or measure the degree of attendant depravity. The safest approach to avoid being misled in ones conclusion is to apply all three approaches, if possible, and to evaluate the results from each of the approaches. A useful caveat in the evaluation is to resolve any doubt in favor of the perpetrator, as a conclusion of moral turpitude invariably signifies a worse consequence for him or her.

G.R. No. 180363

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