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Prop. C never defines 'moral turpitude' 

Wednesday, May 28 2008

The June ballot has a lot of controversial measures — a new school tax, the proposed Hunters Point development — but it's hard to see why anyone would oppose Proposition C, a charter amendment that would prevent city employees convicted of crimes of moral turpitude from collecting city retirement benefits.

Except — wait a minute, isn't "moral turpitude" what homosexuals used to be convicted of? Yes, actually — which is why the Harvey Milk Democratic Club is opposing it, raising the specter of gay witch hunts at City Hall.

But since when has anyone needed a charter amendment to persecute gays? The city already thought it could deny retirement benefits to employees convicted of crimes involving moral turpitude — such as, say, embezzlement. A recent court case proved it wrong, so Supervisor Sean Elsbernd wants to fix that technicality. The amendment specifies that it would apply only to those who commit such crimes in connection with their city jobs.

So a gay witch hunt? Nah. A witch hunt against embezzlers? We can but wish.

But if Prop. C is a dud on the discrimination front, it does raise a much more interesting technical question: What, exactly, is a crime of moral turpitude?

No one really had an answer. The City Attorney's office issued a statement that "For the most part, [crimes of moral turpitude] have been applied to employees that embezzled funds or stolen property from the City."

Right — but what are they?

The District Attorney's office couldn't help: a spokesperson actually refused to talk on the record about what moral turpitude might be, and instead gave a long list of some of the crimes ("on background") that are included. They included mayhem, corporal punishment, oral copulation (uh-oh!), and ... yes, sodomy.

Bob Weisberg, the academic director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center, says moral turpitude is typically a classification added onto another crime, or something that used to be a crime – indicating that society doesn't like you. Sort of. "It's not a helpful term, but it is an established legal term," he said. "Lawyers have to struggle to find some kind of sensible boundary, and they usually fail."

That's too bad, because crimes of moral turpitude actually turn up in the city charter and in ethics committee regulations. It's a pretty common term for something we can't define.

Maybe that's the problem.

About The Author

Benjamin Wachs


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