George Mason University Antonin Scalia Law School

Criminal Copyright Infringement is Crime of "Moral Turpitude"

Cross-posted from the Law Theories blog.

sheet musicThis past Friday, the Board of Immigration Appeals held that criminal copyright infringement constitutes a “crime involving moral turpitude” under immigration law. The Board reasoned that criminal copyright infringement is inherently immoral because it involves the willful theft of property and causes harm to both the copyright owner and society.

The respondent, Raul Zaragoza-Vaquero, was indicted in 2012 for selling illicit CDs of popular artists including Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga, and Jennifer Lopez over a five-year period. After a three-day trial, the jury found Zaragoza-Vaquero guilty of criminal copyright infringement under Section 506(a)(1)(A), which makes it a crime to “willfully” infringe “for purposes of commercial advantage or private financial gain.” The crime was a felony under Section 2319(b)(1) because it involved the “reproduction or distribution, . . . during any 180-day period, of at least 10 copies or phonorecords, of 1 or more copyrighted works, which have a total retail value of more than $2,500.” Zaragoza-Vaquero was sentenced to 33 months in prison and ordered to pay $36,000 in restitution.

Under immigration law, an alien who has been ordered removed from the United States may ask the Attorney General to cancel the removal order. However, there is an exception for “any alien convicted of . . . a crime involving moral turpitude,” in which case the Attorney General is powerless to cancel the removal. Zaragoza-Vaquero was ordered removed in early 2015, and the Immigration Judge pretermitted his application to have the removal order cancelled by the Attorney General. The Immigration Judge held that criminal copyright infringement is a “crime involving moral turpitude,” thus making Zaragoza-Vaquero ineligible for such cancellation. On appeal, the Board agreed, rejecting Zaragoza-Vaquero’s bid to have the Attorney General consider his removal.

Even though crimes of “moral turpitude” have been removable offenses since 1891, Congress has never defined what the phrase means nor listed the crimes that qualify. That job instead has been left to immigration judges and the federal courts. In 1951, the U.S. Supreme Court noted that “crimes in which fraud was an ingredient have always been regarded as involving moral turpitude.” Indeed, many property crimes have been held to involve “moral turpitude” when committed willfully because there is the criminal intent to defraud the property owner of its rights. “Moral turpitude” has thus been found to exist in numerous crimes against property, including arson, burglary, embezzlement, extortion, blackmail, bribery, false pretenses, forgery, larceny, receiving or transporting stolen goods, and check or credit card fraud.

Crimes against intellectual property have likewise been found to involve “moral turpitude.” For example, the Ninth Circuit held in 2008 that the use of counterfeit marks, in violation of state law, is “a crime involving moral turpitude because it is an inherently fraudulent crime.” The Ninth Circuit reasoned: “Either an innocent purchaser is tricked into buying a fake item; or even if the purchaser knows the item is counterfeit, the owner of the mark has been robbed of its value. The crime is really a species of theft. . . . The commission of the crime necessarily defrauds the owner of the mark, or an innocent purchaser of the counterfeit items, or both.”

Similarly, the Board of Immigration Appeals held in 2007 that trafficking in counterfeit goods, in violation of federal law, is a crime of “moral turpitude.” The Board reasoned that the conviction required the federal prosecutor to prove that the defendant “intentionally trafficked” and “knowingly used a spurious trademark that was likely to confuse or deceive others.” Even though the statute did not require proof that the defendant had the specific intent to defraud, the Board held that such trafficking involved “moral turpitude” because it is “inherently immoral” to willfully exploit the property owner and the public.

Turning back to Zaragoza-Vaquero, the Board defined “moral turpitude” as “conduct that shocks the public conscience as being inherently base, vile, or depraved, and contrary to accepted rules of morality and the duties owed between persons or to society in general.” The Board then noted that trafficking in counterfeit goods has been held to be a crime of “moral turpitude” because it involves (1) “theft of someone else’s property,” (2) “proof of intent to traffic,” (3) “societal harm,” and (4) “dishonest dealing and deliberate exploitation of the public and the mark owner.”

Reasoning by analogy to these trafficking cases, the Board ultimately held that criminal copyright infringement “must also be a crime involving moral turpitude.” Criminal copyright infringement statutes “were enacted to protect a form of intellectual property,” and offenses “must be committed willfully, meaning that a defendant must voluntarily and intentionally violate a known legal duty not to infringe a copyright.” The Board noted that criminal copyright infringement “also involves significant societal harm,” since “piracy” has “harmed the film and recording industries, including actors, artists, and musicians.” It pointed to a recent report by the Government Accountability Office, which found that “intellectual property crimes cause negative effects on health, safety, and lost revenue.”

The Board’s holding that criminal copyright infringement is a crime of “moral turpitude” thus extends the long line of cases finding that crimes against property are inherently immoral when the criminal intentionally defrauds the owner of its rights. While many will surely balk at the suggestion that there’s anything immoral about criminal copyright infringement, I think the Board reached the right conclusion—both in the moral and legal sense. A defendant such as Zaragoza-Vaquero, who for years willfully infringed for profit, has acted in a way that shocks the conscience and has shown a conscious disregard for the rights of others. And while prosecutors need not show the specific intent to defraud in securing such a conviction, the element of willfulness suffices to establish the intent to defraud the copyright owner of its property.