Prescription medications have several legitimate and necessary uses for patients with several medical conditions and illnesses. However, in California State, the usage of these drugs is highly regulated. The illegal possession, sale, or use of prescription medication is treated the same as illegal narcotics. Misusing, forging, or altering a drug prescription is also a crime in California. And considering the increasing awareness of prescription medication’s addictiveness in the state, this offense is not prosecuted lightly. If you have been charged, you need to contact a skilled prescription drug lawyer to handle your case.
At Orange County Criminal Defense Attorney Law Firm, we have successfully defended hundreds of clients accused of this crime. We have in-depth knowledge of the state’s law on prescription drugs, which guides us in developing a solid defense strategy. If you are in Orange County or the surrounding areas, we invite you to reach out to us as soon as possible for further consultation.
Defining the Crime of Altering/Forging a Prescription
Business & Professions Code 4324 is the law that sets forth the crime of altering/forging a prescription in California. It prohibits falsely altering, forging, making, uttering, publishing, passing as genuine, or attempting to pass as authentic a prescription for any medication. This statute also prohibits signing another person’s name, whether fictitious or real, on a given prescription or possessing any drug acquired through a falsified prescription.
Examples of actions that can be considered forging or altering a prescription include:
- Bill calls a drugstore pretending he is a physician and requests a 90-day prescription for himself.
- Irene steals her doctor’s prescription pad. She forges a morphine (a strong pain drug) prescription made out to her sister and appends the physician’s name.
- Paul’s health care provider prescribes him ten tablets of oxycodone. Paul alters the ‘one’ in number ‘ten’ to read as ‘forty.’
Elements of the Crime
Elements of the crime are the facts the DA needs to prove beyond reasonable doubt for a defendant to be convicted of the charges they are facing. In the crime of altering/falsifying a prescription, the prosecution has to prove various factors based on precisely what you did. Let’s have a look:
To show that you’re guilty of forging a prescription by falsifying a signature, the DA has to establish that:
- You signed another person’s name or false name on a prescription
- You didn’t have the legal authority to append your signature against that name
- You knew that you didn’t have the power to do so
- When you signed the prescription, you had the intent to defraud
To prove you are guilty of forging a prescription by altering it, the DA has to establish only two elements. They are:
- You falsely made, changed, or counterfeited the prescription
- When doing so, you had a defrauding intention
And for you to be convicted of forgery by using, passing, or offering/attempting to use an altered/forged prescription, the DA has to demonstrate that:
- You used, passed, offered/tried to use a changed/forged/false/counterfeited prescription
- You did so with the intention that it be accepted as authentic, and you intended to defraud
- You knew the prescription was forged/altered/counterfeited/false
You intend to defraud if you aim to deceive someone else into causing a loss of goods, money, services, or anything else of value, or cause damage to financial, property, or legal rights. For Business & Professions Code 4324 purposes, a person comprises a governmental entity, political body, corporation, association, etc. Note that a person doesn’t need to be defrauded in the real sense or suffer a legal, property, or financial loss due to your acts.
The Legal Meaning of Drug
Under Business & Professions Code 4025, a drug includes both veterinary and prescription medications. It also comprises any other drug that could be acquired without a doctor’s prescription.
The Legal Meaning of Prescription
As per the Business & Professions Code 4040, a prescription refers to an instruction for a medication given by phone, in writing, or through electronic transmission, for example, via facsimile of a written prescription. A prescription has to comprise, among other details:
- The patient’s name
- The quantity & name of the prescribed medication, and the direction of use
- The prescriber’s name, telephone number, and address
- The precise date the prescription was issued
- The prescriber’s signature
The Legal Meaning of Utter
For Business & Profession Code 4324 purposes, the term utter bears a broader meaning than its usual usage. A person falsely utters a prescription when they use or try to use an altered or forged prescription, and present through their conduct or words that it’s genuine.
Consider this example: Maurice’s physician writes him a hydrocodone prescription after he strains his wrist. The doctor indicates one refill. However, Maurice alters the ‘one’ to ‘four.’ When he takes the prescription to the pharmacist, the pharmacist comments that that is much medicine for only a sprain. Maurice innocently agrees to the pharmacist’s comment and shrugs. In this case, Maurice may be convicted of violating Business & Professions Code 4324 for falsely uttering a prescription.
Note that should you knowingly prescribe drugs for a patient you know is addicted to the drugs and the medications aren’t medically recommended, or the patient has been asking for multiple prescriptions, you could be criminally liable. However, this could be a challenging case for the DA to prosecute unless there is sufficient proof showing that you were aware, for instance, that that patient was selling the medications, and you had been profiting from those sales. Otherwise, Prescribing pain drugs in excess isn’t uncommon among health care providers, and it isn’t a crime.
The Legal Definition of Forging or Altering
It is illegal to forge another person’s signature on any prescription. Apart from medical doctors, other parties like physician assistants and nurse practitioners can also prescribe medications, and so can veterinarians. If you falsify any of these professionals’ names to acquire drugs, you may be subject to criminal charges.
You alter a legally-issued prescription if you add to, erase, or change part of it to affect a financial, property, or legal right, for instance, the prescribed drug’s quantity. Pharmacists usually raise suspicions when a prescription has a remarkably higher amount of the drug or if it indicates a higher number of refills. Typically a phone call to the individual prescriber could affirm whether or not the number of refills or indicated quantity is legitimate.
Other defendants will alter the drug type or add a medication to the written prescription, for example, changing Tylenol II to Tylenol IV.
The prosecutor has several different methods to prove that you falsified a signature. One way is presenting testimony from an eyewitness who saw you forge the signature. Another way is to have a handwriting expert scrutinize your prior writings with the supposed fake signature then compare the two. Thus, you want to have a lawyer by your side, capable of challenging the witness and handwriting expert’s testimony.
Legal Defenses Against the Charges of Altering or Forging a Prescription
The crime of altering or forging a prescription is usually fact-specific. Defending the allegations depends on the actual charges you are facing. Thus, you want to speak with a skilled false prescription lawyer to know the possible defenses you can apply. The various examples of legal arguments include but aren’t restricted to:
Illegal Search & Seizure
In other cases, you may have altered or forged the prescription, but your actions were only discovered after an unlawful search & seizure. In this case, your criminal defense lawyer will move to file a PC 1538.5 motion to suppress proof. In case the judge grants it, any evidence gathered during the unlawful search & seizure will be omitted from the case. When this happens, the prosecuting attorney may agree that you serve a probation sentence instead of going to jail. Alternatively, they may even dismiss your charges altogether.
Exceeding the Legal Scope of the Search Warrant
As implied above, most searches of your property or person have to comply with a valid warrant. We have several exclusions to the search warrant requirements, including if the prescription was discovered while the officers performed a legal search for something else like business records or receipts.
Another noteworthy exception is searching a property for weapons before making an arrest. Consider this. The police might conduct a person/property search for prohibited weapons. But because a paper slip is unlikely to be considered a weapon, taking it from your pocket then using it as proof can be argued as going beyond the legal scope of the search warrant. Exceeding the search warrant’s range is another legal defense that your lawyer can apply if that warrant only allowed a house search, yet the police searched your vehicle and discovered the incriminating prescription.
The police may also file a motion to suppress if this situation applies to your case and manage to have the illegally obtained proof thrown out.
It Wasn’t You Who Signed the Prescription.
It is upon the prosecutor to show that you did append your signature on the prescription. So if you have irrefutable evidence to prove that you couldn’t have signed it, you have a valid defense against your charges.
You Had Legal Authority to Sign
You can’t be convicted of falsely signing a prescription if you were legally authorized to sign it. For instance, a doctor may permit his/her assistant to sign a prescription he/she has written for a patient, therefore giving the assistant full authorization. If the assistant were to be charged under Business & Professions Code 4324, he/she could apply this defense.
You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Have Authority to Sign
Here, your attorney has to prove that you weren’t aware that you didn’t have any legal authority to append your signature on the prescription. He/she can use proof of prior prescriptions that you lawfully signed to prove that you didn’t know you had no legal authority.
You Didn’t Use a Forged or Altered Prescription.
If you’re prosecuted for using an altered or forged prescription, you have a valid defense if you can validly prove that the altered or forged prescription wasn’t used anywhere. However, you could still be prosecuted for forging or altering a prescription even if you didn’t use it.
You Didn’t Know the Prescription Was Altered or Forged.
Most of the time, people send their friends to the pharmacies with altered or forged prescriptions. The burden of proof lies with the prosecutor to prove that you involved yourself in fraudulent activity. Thus, if you didn’t write anything on the prescription or didn’t know your friend gave you an altered or forged prescription, it could be challenging for the court to find you guilty. But if you’ve been previously convicted of similar actions, or it was evident that you should’ve been aware that whatever you did was illegal, this defense may be difficult to argue.
Other defenses include:
- The call did not come from your cell phone
- The call originated from your cell phone, but another person made it
- Someone else at the pharmacy or doctor’s office committed a mistake
Penalties for Forging/Altering a Prescription
Violating the Business & Professions Code 4324 is penalized based on the specific action of the defendant. Obtaining prescription medication over the phone through false representation is a misdemeanor. This action is punished by a county jail term of up to a year and a fine not exceeding $1000.
On the other hand, writing a false prescription is charged as a wobbler. A wobbler crime is a crime that can be prosecuted as a felony or misdemeanor based on the defendant’s criminal history and the specific facts surrounding the case. A misdemeanor offense is punished by a maximum of a year in jail and up to $1000 in fines. A felony charge is penalized by time in prison for a maximum of three years.
If you are caught in possession of drugs obtained through a forged prescription, you will be subject to wobbler charges. If you’re charged with a misdemeanor, you will face a maximum of a year in jail and a fine not exceeding $1000 upon conviction. If you’re facing felony charges, the crime is penalized by three or two years, or sixteen months in prison and up to $10,000 in fines. Alternatively, the court may suspend your jail or prison time and sentence you to misdemeanor probation or felony probation.
If granted probation, you are likely to serve no or little jail time. However, you’ll do the probation sentence for several years, generally three, but sometimes, as long as five years. While you are serving your probation time, the court will require you to adhere to various conditions, including:
- Drug testing
- Drug counseling
- Community labor/service, for instance, Caltrans roadside maintenance
- Payment of fines
- The order that you don’t violate other statutes
- Warrantless searches of your property or person
If you’re found guilty of possessing drugs obtained through an altered or forged prescription, you may be ordered to enroll in a drug diversion program. These programs are typically recommended in possession cases and are meant to help offenders eliminate their drug dependency. Therefore, you must talk with a lawyer to help you find out whether the court may compel you to enroll in a drug diversion program.
If it’s felony probation that you’ve been sentenced to, you’ll also be required to hold regular meetings (generally monthly) with your probation officer. Should you violate any of these probationary conditions, the court may cancel the probation then reinstate your original jail sentence.
Note that with wobblers, the prosecutor usually charges them as felonies to gain leverage in plea agreements. Thus, you should hire a skilled false prescription lawyer if you’re facing wobbler charges. At Orange County Criminal Defense Attorney Law Firm, we understand the DA’s attempts to have leverage during plea bargaining. Our lawyers will only agree to a plea deal if you tell them to do so. But, we aren’t afraid to proceed to trial if the deal isn’t good enough. We’ll help you reach a better decision on which path to take.
Related Offenses to Business & Professions Code 4324 Violation
Related crimes to violation of Business & Professions Code 4324 are those that share similar elements with altering/forging a prescription and can be charged alongside or instead of it. They include:
HSC 11173, Prescription Fraud/Doctor Shopping
HSC 11173, doctor shopping—acquiring a prescription through fraud makes it an offense to obtain or try to secure controlled substances through:
- Concealment of material fact
- A falsified statement in a report or prescription
- Affixing a forged or false label to a packaging that contains controlled substances
- Pretending to be a doctor, nurse, or any other healthcare provider
Doctor shopping is the most prevalent violation of HSC 11173. Doctor shopping occurs when a person uses two or more pharmacies or providers to give them numerous prescriptions for controlled drugs, with each not being aware of the others. This act is also called prescription fraud. Violating HSC 11173 is charged as a wobbler. Your punishment will include a fine not exceeding $1,000 and up to a year in jail upon conviction if you face misdemeanor charges. Felony charges are punishable by three or two years or sixteen months in prison and a maximum fine of $10,000.
HSC 11350, Possessing a Controlled Drug
HSC 11350 criminalizes having prescription medication or illegal drugs without a legal prescription. As per HSC 11350, it’s a misdemeanor offense to illegally possess several common street controlled substances and narcotic prescription drugs, for instance, peyote, cocaine, mescaline, heroin plus other opiates, and narcotic painkillers, like Oxycontin & Vicodin.
If you are arrested in possession of the controlled substances above, you may face a fine that does not exceed $1000 and up to a year in jail or a probation sentence with compulsory community services. Before, possessing controlled substances was a felony offense. However, the crime was decreased to a misdemeanor as per Proposition 47. If you had been previously found guilty of a felony for an HSC 11350 violation, you’re likely to qualify for a re-sentencing. A re-sentencing may have you be convicted of a misdemeanor, thanks to Proposition 47.
Health & Safety Code (HSC) 11368, Altering or Forging a Prescription for a Narcotic Drug
HSC 11368 is more specific compared to Business & Professions Code 4324. This law makes it an offense to:
- Alter or forge any prescription for narcotic drugs, for example, opiates,
- Utter or issue altered prescriptions
- Utter or issue prescriptions bearing a fictitious or forged signature
- Be in possession or acquire a narcotic drug through any fictitious, altered, or forged prescription
Violating HSC 11368 is charged as a wobbler. If you face misdemeanor charges, the consequences include a maximum fine of $1,000 and up to a year in jail upon conviction. On the other hand, a felony charge carries a potential sentence of three or two years or sixteen months in prison and a fine not exceeding $10,000.
The Federal Controlled Substances Act (21 USC 843)
21 USC 843(a)(3) criminalizes the acquiring or obtaining possession of any controlled substances through fraud, forgery, misrepresentation, scam, or deception. The Federal statute is most frequently applied to punish:
- Pharmacists and doctors who falsify significant quantities of prescription medication record, and
- Persons who traffic drugs in substantial amounts and have acquired the drugs them by altering or forging prescriptions
Violating 21 USC 843 is charged as a federal felony. The punishment for first-time offenders is a federal prison sentence that does not exceed four years. And the consequences for subsequent offenses include a maximum fine of $250,000 and a federal prison sentence not exceeding eight years.
At Orange County Criminal Defense Attorney Law Firm, our lawyers have over twenty years of criminal defense experience defending clients with prescription medication charges. We understand how to approach every case’s specific facts and have the highest chance to succeed in keeping our clients out of jail. Whether you have just been arrested, are being investigated, or charged with forging/altering a prescription, contact us at 714-740-7848. Don’t plead guilty just yet. The prosecution’s proof could be misleading, and you could be innocent.