Naturalization is the end goal for many immigrants in the United States as they strive for full integration as American Citizens. Part of the naturalization requirement is that you be a “person of good moral character,” which is tested in part by a background check to see if you have any past criminal convictions during the statutory period. If you have a petty theft conviction (or something similar in nature) on your record, you might be concerned about how it will affect your ability to naturalize.
To assess one’s “good moral character,” USCIS checks to see if you have committed a “crime involving moral turpitude” (CIMT). Although that phrase does not have a specific meaning, courts have provided guidance and broken down CIMTs into four categories:
- Crimes against a person – These are crimes such as aggravated battery, rape, or murder which have a criminal intent or recklessness OR are otherwise defined by individual states as reprehensible crimes.
- Crimes Against property – These are crimes such as theft, forgery, and robbery which involve fraud against either the government or an individual.
- Sexual and Family Crimes – These are crimes such as spousal or child abuse that generally require violence and intent to commit the crime.
- Crimes Against Authority of the Government – These are crimes such as bribing a government official or counterfeiting that require an intent to defraud the government in some way.
Unfortunately, having a petty theft conviction means that your crime is defined as a crime against moral turpitude under the “crimes against property” category. However, thanks to the “Petty Offense Exception,” a petty theft conviction does not mean that you will be automatically be barred from naturalizing.
Petty Offense Exception
In order to take advantage of the petty offense exception, you must meet all of the following conditions:
- The petty offense (in this case, the petty theft) must be the only CIMT you have ever committed;
- You were sentenced for 6 months or less for the petty theft conviction; and
- The maximum possible sentence for the offense was no more than a year.
Note that although USCIS generally only looks for crimes committed within the statutory period, the petty offense exception looks beyond it. That is, if you have a petty theft conviction within the statutory period but have ANY other CIMT outside of the statutory period, you will be unable to take advantage of the petty offense exception.
How to Take Advantage of the Petty Offense Exception
If you are confident that you qualify to take advantage of the petty offense exception, you will want to show the immigrant officer that your conviction falls under the exception. To do this, you will want to get a certified record of your conviction. This process will vary from court to court and you may want to seek assistance from an experienced attorney to obtain and properly review the record. Additionally, you will want a copy of the statute under which you were convicted so that you can show what the maximum possible sentence was. The statute should be named in the record of conviction, but again, you may want to seek the help of an attorney to ensure you properly analyze the applicable statute.
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 The statutory period is based on your status prior to applying for naturalization. It is generally five years for permanent residents hoping to naturalize, three years if you are married to a U.S. citizen, and only one year for certain qualifying applicants applying on the basis of qualifying U.S. military service.
 This is based on statutory maximum sentences and has nothing to do with your particular sentence.