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What is Moral Turpitude at a DMV Hearing

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With increasing frequency, the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) will base a Special Certificate action on a “finding of moral turpitude.” The DMV routinely does this because moral turpitude is difficult to define and gives the DMV Hearing Officer the nearly unrestrained ability to “label” any unwholesome or uncomfortable past event as being an “issue of moral turpitude.

The DMV’s definition of Moral Turpitude is:

“The act of baseness, vileness, or depravity in private or social duties, which man owes to his fellow man, or to society in general, contrary to the accepted and customary rule of right and wrong and the duty between man and man. Act or behavior that gravely violates moral sentiment or accepted moral standards of the community and is a morally culpable quality held to be present in some criminal offenses as distinguished from others.”

While it is true that many Special Certificate actions are supported by a court conviction, the DMV is also permitted to take a disciplinary action against a driver’s Special Certificate for   issues involving Moral Turpitude, even when no conviction occurs. Some acts involving moral turpitude include immoral sexual behavior, or crimes of personal gain, fraud, or theft.

DMV hearing officers are routinely taught to use the following as a working theory of Moral Turpitude:

   “Conduct which is contrary to justice, honesty, modesty, or good morals.”

Although current law requires the DMV to establish the nexus (logical connection) between the alleged criminal conduct or bad act and the driver’s ability to engage in the use of the Special Certificate, DMV Hearing Officers are granted great power to subjectively make this connection.

An example is: Joe was arrested 5 years ago for shoplifting. Even though the criminal case was dropped and never prosecuted, the DMV considers this to be an act of moral turpitude because shoplifting is considered a crime for personal gain. Even though, Joe was not convicted; and even though driving a Specialized Vehicle is not affected by this five-year old incident, the DMV may refuse, suspend or revoke his Special Certificate for “Moral Turpitude.”

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