We all know what forgery is in the broadest term, thanks to Hollywood. We see plenty of media with storylines of forged passports or ID and banknotes or even artwork. But, what does the law view as forgery, and how is the crime of forgery punished in the US?
The Legal Definition of Forgery
The legal definition of forgery is very broad. It is simply the act of creating false writing or altering legitimate writing to make it false. Therefore, the following crimes all fall under the umbrella of forgery:
- Altering an ID card or document to make it fake
- Falsely signing a statement
- Forging currency (counterfeiting)
- Copying famous artwork
- Falsely signing a will or other official document
- Falsifying professional licenses or academic transcripts
- Forging postage stamps
In order to convict a defendant of forgery, the prosecutor must prove all of the legal elements exist. The legal elements of forgery are as follows:
- The person possesses, uses, or makes a false document. Alternatively, the person alters a genuine document to make it fake by signing as someone else or changing details.
- The false document or its contents has legal significance. This means that the forgery has a large impact in the eyes of the law. It includes something like signing as someone else on a letter of recommendation.
- The writing on the document misrepresents the truth or is false.
- The intention behind the forgery was to trick or defraud someone or a legal entity.
Are Forgery Cases Tried in State or Federal Court?
Most forgery cases are tried in state court. However, if the forgery is related to the government, like money orders, postage stamps, money, or military documents, then it is a federal case and will be tried in federal court.
Federal forgery cases are often serious because of the nature of the documents that were forged and the possible ramifications. Depending on the document that was forged, a defendant may face up to 10 years in prison if convicted.
What Are the Penalties For Forgery?
Forgery is mostly a felony, but in some states, certain types of forgery will be charged as a misdemeanor. This may be in cases where the potential fallout or monetary value of the forgery is low.
If forgery is charged as a felony, then all states and federal courts will punish the defendant with incarceration, fines, restitution, and probation. A misdemeanor forgery charge will also be punished with all of the above but to a lesser extent. The defendant may be sentenced to community service if they get away without too much jail time or probation only.
470 PC: California’s Forgery Laws
California’s forgery laws agree with the federal definition of forgery, but they often extend their reach to any document. Examples of forgery, include:
- Forging stocks
- Forging lottery tickets
- Tampering with official seals
- Changing photos on official documents or ID cards
- Falsifying concert tickets, plane tickets, etc.
- Falsifying contracts
- Falsifying legal documents like property deeds or wills
- Claiming someone else’s financial information
- Attempting or actually depositing someone else’s checks
- Writing a check above your bank account balance
California Forgery Penalties
California uses the same metric for classifying forgery as misdemeanor or felony as it does for grand theft. Anything above $950 is felony forgery. The punishments for felony forgery is up to 3 years in county jail or up to 16 months in state prison and fines of up to $10,000. They may also be forced to pay restitution, depending on the circumstances.
Anything below $950 is misdemeanor forgery. The punishments for misdemeanor forgery is up to a year in county jail and smaller fines.
Please note that the above penalties are for California forgery convictions. Other states or federal forgery cases may have different penalties.
Legal Defenses to Forgery Charges
If you are charged with forgery, then you need to find a criminal defense lawyer who specializes in forgery law. There are a number of ways that a specialized criminal attorney can prove that forgery did not occur or that you were not responsible for it. They may use expert witnesses to compare the document in question against a real one or even handwriting experts to prove that you did not sign the document.
Your criminal defense lawyer may be able to disprove one of the elements of forgery charges. For example, they may show there was no intention to defraud anyone, and you simply made a mistake on the legal document. This may only work in some cases.
Alternatively, your criminal defense lawyer will be able to advise you if there are deals or plea bargains you can take to reduce the penalties of forgery. In California, forgery charges may be downgraded to probation, restitution, and enrollment in financial literacy classes and bad check diversion programs. These are usually only available for first-time offenders.