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Conviction: Civil Disabilities

The Predicates For Imposing Civil Disabilities

Considerable variation exists among the states as to which civil disabilities are imposed and when they apply. By far the most common basis for imposing civil disabilities is a conviction for a felony. Although the term felony is not always consistently defined, it typically means a crime for which a year or more of imprisonment may be imposed. Thus, the same civil disability is often visited both on a person convicted of first-degree murder and on one convicted of a relatively minor crime. Some states, however, impose such disabilities only after conviction for certain enumerated felonies. As a third alternative, in some states conviction of a "crime of moral turpitude" or of an "infamous crime" is the basis for civil disabilities. Thus, the distinction between a felony and misdemeanor, which often plays a role in many aspects of criminal law, is ignored, thereby subjecting to civil disabilities a person convicted of misdemeanors that are thought to reflect some weakness of morals or moral behavior. This attempt to be more discerning actually widens the net. One court, for example, has ruled that the term moral turpitude includes any offense that is "contrary to justice, honesty, principle, and good morals" (In re Hatch, 10 Cal. 2d 147, 73 P.2d 885 (1937)). The ambiguity of this standard was revealed in a later decision by the same court, which held that failure to report for the Selective Service draft during World War II was not a crime of "moral turpitude" (Otsuka v. Hite, 64 Cal. 2d 596, 414 P.2d 412 (1966)).

Civil disabilities are usually imposed without any necessary connection between a specific disability and the crime that has been committed. Thus, a person convicted for a drug violation may find himself forbidden to vote or even to make contracts, even though his crime has no obvious bearing on his ability capably to engage in these activities. Although the issue is not clear, such provisions are probably constitutional (Hawker v. New York, 170 U.S. 189 (1898)). Yet it surely seems sensible, at least if the notion of civil death is abjured, to require that there be some "rational connection" between the crime and the specific disability imposed. Under such a scheme, a person convicted of bribery might be disqualified from public employment or from serving on a jury, and an embezzler might be prohibited from working as a bank teller or in another capacity involving funds or records. But neither could be barred from exercising private rights, or suffer other disabilities unrelated to the crime for which he was convicted.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawConviction: Civil Disabilities - Historical Background, The Predicates For Imposing Civil Disabilities, Specific Rights Lost, Private Rights, Punishment And Procedure