Forgery in California includes an eclectic variety of related activities like falsifying or altering a legal document, signing someone else’s name, or recreating an official seal to commit fraud. Forging documents is a crime that adversely affects companies and people because society depends on producing and exchanging authentic papers. Because of the adverse effects this offense has on the community, a conviction attracts hefty court fines and lengthy prison sentences. So, it’s critical to retain legal counsel when facing these charges.
At the Orange County Criminal Defense Attorney Law Firm, we will work relentlessly to ensure you get a favorable outcome from the criminal charges. Our defense attorneys have highlighted forgery laws in this article to help you understand the crime better.
General View of Forgery Charges in California
As per California PC 470, forgery is a white-collar crime that involves the practice of falsifying a signature, handwriting, or seal or counterfeiting legal documents with the intent to defraud the victim for personal or financial gain. Authorities take this form of crime seriously because today’s society heavily depends on the use or exchange of these documents. The moment people begin to counterfeit these documents, they do it to acquire financial gain fraudulently. This could have damaging effects on persons and businesses that fall victim to this practice.
PC 470 outlines several ways a person may be liable under this statute. These are:
- They are signing another individual’s name, either real or fake, on a financial or legal document without the person’s permission.
- Counterfeiting a seal on a particular document or another person’s handwriting and submitting it as an original.
- Falsifying or altering documents for financial gain
- Altering or falsifying legal documents like will, checks, or court orders
Materials that are prone to forgery practice include:
- Property deeds
- Money orders
- Lottery tickets
- Stock certificates
- Traveler’s checks
Elements of Forgery the Prosecutor Must Prove to Convict a Defendant
On the issue of forgery offenses, the prosecutor must prove three elements. These elements include:
You Created, Utilized, Altered, or Were in Possession of a Forged Document
Many people assume that forgery is all about making a corrupt document. However, the truth is that changing the details of an original form amounts to fraud. Also, even if you are found in possession or present a document forged by someone else, you could be apprehended and subjected to PC 470 violation charges. During the presentation of their case, the prosecution must demonstrate that you altered, possessed, or made a corrupt document. Keep in mind that alteration or modification interferes with the legal presentation of the report.
Keep in mind PC 470 prohibits people from aiding or helping another person commit forgery. It means you could be unlawfully liable even if you didn’t modify, use, or make the forged report or form in person. Authorities understand that forgery requires top-notch skills and technology. And for this reason, the crime is rarely committed by one person. Usually, there is a team of individuals involved. Therefore, California aiding and abetting laws are designed to ensure any person who is part of the larger scheme to commit fraud is also punished for the crime even if they played a minor role.
An Untrue Writing
When proving this element, the prosecutor must demonstrate that the copy you recreated or modified had massive legal effects. Even if you created false writing that shows you made specific alterations, it would not fit the definition of forgery under PC 470 if it lacks significant legal effects. Documents are modified or fabricated if they portray a different purpose other than the one they were intended. Therefore, the prosecuting attorney must demonstrate that the false writing you made on the records had significant legal effects. Otherwise, you will not end up with a conviction for forgery.
Intent to Defraud
The most critical element of forgery is intent or interest to commit fraud. You cannot end up with a conviction if, according to PC 470, if you had no intention of committing fraud. The purpose of intent, in this case, is to prevent wrongful convictions for people who commit forgery absent of intentions to commit fraud. An attempt alone is enough for you to end up with a sentence even if the person you intended to defraud didn’t suffer in property or financial loss.
The prosecutor must show that you made an attempt or succeeded in deceiving someone else or a company by presenting to them false or altered information. Lying to deny a person legal rights, property, or financial benefits also demonstrates the intention to commit fraud. In case you are facing charges for violating PC 470, you will need a proficient and knowledgeable criminal defense attorney in your corner. An attorney will collect crucial facts about the case that will make it difficult for the prosecutor to prove intent or other elements, resulting in a favorable outcome.
You were Aware You Lacked Consent
Signing or modifying documents with fraudulent intent happens when you act without permission from the report owner. Sometimes, as an employee, you might not understand the scope of your duties or whether you have the power to take particular actions. So, if you sign or modify a report you were not permitted to, you might end up with a conviction if the prosecutor shows you knew that you were not authorized to sign or modify a particular report. In incidents as aforementioned, you will need an attorney’s help to contest the prosecutor’s assertion and show that although you altered or signed a particular document, you didn’t know that you were not allowed to do so.
It’s worth noting that if any of the above elements goes unproven beyond reasonable certainty, doubt will be cast in the jury’s mind or judge, which might result in a favorable outcome. For this reason, you are encouraged to enlist the services of a proficient legal counsel because it will enhance the odds of the charges being reduced or dropped.
Consequences of California PC 470 Violation
In most circumstances, the crime of forgery is deemed a wobbler and results in severe consequences. The type of penalties imposed by the court depends on whether the prosecutor charges you with a misdemeanor or felony. The decision by the prosecution relies on the nature of the crime and your criminal record. Other dynamics that might influence the prosecution’s decision on the charges to file depend on the number of people you have victimized and the losses.
If the prosecutor’s decision is to charge you with a felony, a conviction will result in the following penalties:
- Twenty-four or thirty-six months in prison
- Court fines nor exceeding $10,000
- Restitution of victims. If the forgery caused property or financial losses, the court would order you to restitute or reimburse the victim for the losses incurred.
- No more than 60 months of felony probation. If the court decides to impose probation after a felony sentence, you will need to follow all probation terms. Some of the probation terms include frequent check-ins with your probation officer and staying away from any criminal activity. Not adhering to the terms of probation will result in cancelation or additional criminal charges.
On the other hand, if the preferred charge is a misdemeanor, a sentence will follow the following penalties:
- Up to 12 months jail incarceration
- No more than $1,000 court fines
- Misdemeanor probation for no more than 36 months — If the court imposes informal probation, you will not be required to adhere to felony probation terms.
- Community labor
Note that for the prosecutor to prefer misdemeanor charges against you, the following things must be right:
- You forged a document defined under PC 470
- The document you are accused of falsifying results in more than $950 property or financial losses to the victim
- The forgery didn’t involve identity theft.
- You have a clean criminal record for violent crimes or felonies
The misdemeanor or felony penalties listed above can be enhanced under particular circumstances. These circumstances include:
- Forging a financial document or report to defraud a victim of a disaster
- Presence of multiple persons who suffered financial or property losses because of your actions
- Causing property or financial loss of more than $100,000 will attract an extra 24 months incarceration on top of your baseline sentence.
- Where your actions result in $500,000 or more losses, the court will impose an extra five year-incarceration.
- Commission of a felony crime to help criminal or street gang activity will result in a 48 months sentence enhancement.
Aside from the legal punishments mentioned above, a sentence for PC 470 violation can affect your life in many ways. One of the consequences is that you might lose your right to own or possess a gun. Furthermore, the felony criminal record will make it an uphill task to secure security clearance. This will make it difficult to secure employment or promotion. However, if you want to avoid these consequences, you should hire a competent defense attorney to contest the charges.
Legal Defenses for California Forgery Charges
The majority of PC 470 violation charges happen in a company or legal setting. The severe consequences that a conviction for the crime attracts makes it devastating to face these charges. However, with legal guidance from an experienced attorney, you can avoid these penalties or face a reduced sentence.
An attorney can enter you in a diversion program that you are eligible for based on the nature of your case. The diversion allows you to pay full restitution to your action’s victims and attend an intervention class that lasts for one day. If you complete the diversion program, the conviction will be expunged and will no longer count as a prior record.
Similarly, an attorney will put up the following legal defenses to have the charges lowered or dismissed:
Lack of Intention to Commit Fraud
PC 470 is designed to punish people who engage in forgery with intent to defraud. Proving you had intentions to commit fraud is the primary element that the prosecution uses to get a conviction. However, the problem is that they rely on circumstantial evidence, which makes it a puzzle for them to prove this element. If the prosecutor does not clearly define this element, your attorney can argue that you lacked the interest to defraud.
However, this defense will work best if you were an employee following orders from your boss to sign or modify a legal document that they had the authority to do so, but later, you realize you were a pawn in a larger fraud scheme. You can also apply this defense if you possessed the corrupted reports, but you were not involved in their counterfeiting or alteration. Your attorney will look for evidence to show you didn’t plan on violating PC 470 in any way.
The Report in Question Doesn’t Represent Any Legal Significance or is not Fraudulent
As stated earlier, for an act to be deemed a forgery, the value of financial or property loss must be significant. If the amount of loss could not bring you any financial benefit, your attorney can argue you didn’t commit a crime. Further, if the report in question doesn’t deny any person their legal rights, it means that you didn’t commit forgery because your actions had no legal value.
You Had Approval from the Owner
PC 470 outlines forgery as altering or signing a document on behalf of another person without their approval or consent. Having permission means the owner allowed you to make modifications or sign the material for them. Your attorney can present documents to show that you possessed the power to act in the fashion that you did. Without written evidence of approval to act on behalf of the document owner, it will be challenging to put up this defense. However, with the help of an experienced criminal defense attorney, you can always manage to use this defense.
Lack of Knowledge
If you modified a report without knowing, your attorney could argue that it was a mistake or that you were not aware that your actions amounted to fraud.
Law enforcement in California is prohibited from using coercive measures to force a witness to confess to committing a specific crime. Therefore, if your apprehension or charges were a product of coerced confession, your attorney can easily demonstrate that the evidence obtained against you was acquired through brutality, thus making it inadmissible in court. If the evidence against you is dismissed, the prosecution will have no other option than to lower or drop the charges entirely.
In most incidences, cases of forgery occur in workplace settings or huge business or legal contracts. Given this, it’s easy for someone to accuse the other of selfish reasons falsely. Therefore, if you are in a situation like this, you can argue that you are unjustly accused. However, this assertion alone is not enough. You must provide evidence to show the person unjustly accusing you is doing it for revenge, to cover self-guilt, or out of malice.
You Had No Legal Capacity
To be apprehended and charged with an offense in California, you must demonstrate the ability to commit the crime. Suppose you have a mental or psychological disorder that hinders you from differentiating right and wrong. In that case, your attorney should provide the necessary medical records to support the argument, and the charges will be dropped.
Particular circumstances could cause you to be mistakenly identified as the person who violated PC 470. Because the prosecution will need to use facts to prove you committed the crime, your defense attorney can rely on the same evidence to prove that you were not part of the scheme or you were unaware of the crime.
When you enter into a partnership with a company or individual, there are particular documents you should sign to make the agreement binding. In the event the relationship goes south, you might be accused of forgery by your partner. Suppose you face charges under these circumstances, your attorney can produce documents showing you had the rights to modify or sign the binding documents. That way, you can contest the charges.
The Handwriting in the Document isn’t Yours
Most forgery cases involve forging or counterfeiting someone’s handwriting. The main argument that takes place in court is who wrote what in the document. If you have been accused of developing someone’s handwriting in material, your attorney will need a handwriting expert’s opinion. The expert will help prove to the court that the writing in the forged document isn’t yours.
Remember, the prosecutor uses an expert to build their case. Hence the reason it’s critical to counter their argument with an expert's opinion. The testimony by the expert witnesses isn’t final, however vital it is. If the jury disagrees with your handwriting expert’s opinion, it will be up to your defense attorney to step up and analyze the evidence rules that apply in the case to ensure only the admissible facts are admitted in court.
One of the standard rules your attorney can exploit under forgery charges is the one that requires all handwriting samples to be submitted before the charges are filed. Suppose the samples are presented after the charges have been filed. In this case, it is deemed inadmissible because someone might provide samples that do not represent their real handwriting after being informed of their charges.
Crimes Related to Forgery
Even if your attorney presents the above evidence and gets the charges reduced or dismissed, you are not off the hook yet. The prosecutor could find other offenses related to the PC 470 violation to charge you with. These crimes related to forgery include:
Credit Card Fraud
According to PC 484f, it is a crime for you to counterfeit or forge someone else’s credit card or use it fraudulently. However, charges under this statute will hold in court if it is clear that you acted with intentions to defraud, just like in forgery charges. Additionally, the prosecutor needs to prove you lacked approval from the owner of the card.
A credit card is one of the materials or documents prone to forgery. It means that you can be charged with forgery alongside credit card fraud so that in case forgery charges don’t hold in court, the prosecution can charge you with violation of PC 484f.
As per PC 476, it’s an offense to write, recreate, use, or try to pass a bad check. And just like under PC 470, you cannot end up with a conviction unless it’s proven you planned on defrauding someone else or was aware the check was fake. An apprehension for check fraud can result in a sentence for forgery, so the prosecution often files both charges. Both offenses carry similar penalties too.
Making or Selling Counterfeit Goods
As per California PC 350, it is an offense to produce, sell, or hold for trade any counterfeit goods. The law is designed to punish people who sell fake versions of products. The prosecutor doesn’t have to prove that you had the intent to defraud. However, they must demonstrate you were aware the products were counterfeit, and you intended to sell them as the original.
PC 350 has a remarkable resemblance to forgery; hence the reason prosecutors charge this crime alongside PC 470. However, when it comes to punishment for selling counterfeit goods, the penalties depend on the value of goods in your possession.
Find a White Collar Crimes Attorney Near Me
Sometimes, an honest mistake or misunderstanding can have you apprehended and charged with forgery. The crime is a serious one, and a conviction leads to severe penalties. Thankfully, a criminal defense attorney can present several defenses to contest the charges. Therefore, if you face these allegations, we invite you to contact Orange County Criminal Defense Attorney Law Firm at 714-740-7848 for additional legal guidance or to discuss your case.