4 minute read

Moral Offenses

Comstock Law
. . .80 Harrison Act
. . .88 Prohibition
. . .98

Since the first European settlements in North America in the early seventeenth century, governments in America have tried to regulate morality. The early colonists equated sin with crime. Such offenses as blasphemy (showing a lack of reverence toward God), heresy (holding a belief that conflicts with church doctrine), and adultery (sex between two adults, one of whom is married to another) were considered criminal acts and dealt with by sometimes severe punishments.

Actions and behavior that do not conform to accepted standards of what is considered right or wrong are called public order crimes. Such behavior is seen as disruptive to daily life. They are also called vice crimes or moral offenses. Social standards, or morals, can change through time triggering changes in criminal law. The colonies had "blue laws," so called because they were printed on blue paper, banning certain activities such as work on Sundays.

Blue laws in Europe even enforced what people could eat or wear on Sundays according to their social status. Moral offenses decreased over time as the public accepted that certain forms of social deviation, though still perhaps offensive to Those prosecuted for moral offenses—such as drug use, gambling, or prostitution—often contend they are victimless crimes, such as suspected madam Polly Adler, seen here in New York police custody. (© Bettmann/Corbis) most, should not be considered a crime. Types of modern-day moral offenses include the sale of obscene materials, certain kinds of sexual activity, drug and alcohol abuse, and gambling.

Moral offenses often involve behavior between two consenting adults with no immediate victims to bring charges. This is why moral offenses are sometimes referred to as victimless crimes. The activity commonly involves one person providing goods (such as drugs) or services (gambling or prostitution) to another. With no one to file a criminal complaint claiming injury, these are crimes simply because they were outlawed. Therefore the criminal justice system must rely on informants, undercover agents, and surveillance equipment to detect or investigate such crimes.

Critics of moral offenses claim they should not be considered crimes, but rather discouraged through better parenting and the community in other ways. Critics further claim making these activities crimes creates a black market that can lead to other more serious crime including violence.

Others, however, contend that society as a whole is a victim of these deviant behaviors as well as the friends and family of those involved in the activity. For example, drug use can lead to property crime by a person trying to pay for an expensive as well as destructive habit. Prostitution can cause the spread of disease and put the prostitutes in potentially violent situations. If moral offenses were allowed to occur in a community legally, then more serious criminal activity would likely follow according to those who consider moral offenses a crime. These offenses should remain an illegal criminal activity, which in turn will protect the moral fiber of communities.


The United States has long had criminal laws against certain forms of gambling. The unauthorized selling of lottery tickets has been a crime throughout U.S. history. Other offenses include the promoting of gambling, possession of gambling records, and possession of any equipment associated with gambling. There are certain forms of gambling allowed in some parts of the country, such as betting on race horses, dog racing, at casinos, and in state lotteries.

This chapter presents excerpts from three legal documents, two federal laws, and a constitutional amendment, attempting to regulate the moral behavior of U.S. citizens and protect community order. All three also demonstrate the futility in trying to enforce these laws.

By the late 1800s reformers feared that the availability of birth control information and devices was increasing sexual activity. They pressed for a ban on this and other material they considered obscene. In response, Congress took action. The first excerpt is from the resulting 1873 Comstock Law, more formally called "An Act for the Suppression of Trade in, and Circulation of, Obscene Literature and Articles of Immoral Use." The law represents the first action by the federal government to prohibit what some considered obscene material, including birth control information.

Social reformers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were also concerned with drug and alcohol use in the nation. Existing concern over opium use escalated when the process of refining opium into heroin was discovered in 1898. Heroin addiction was growing rapidly at the turn of the century. The second excerpt from Harrison Narcotic Drug Act of 1914 represents the first federal attempt to regulate the distribution of illegal drugs into and within the United States.

Increased restrictions on narcotics were followed by a total ban on alcoholic beverages. The third excerpt, Eighteenth Amendment—Prohibition of Intoxicating Liquors represents the beginning of a failed thirteen-year experiment to prohibit alcohol use in the United States. Though criminal laws concerning alcohol use would be greatly scaled back in the 1930s, drug laws would continue to multiply despite limited success in curbing drug use.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal Law