Under California Penal Code 476, check fraud occurs when an individual makes, possesses, passes, uses, or attempts to use a false or altered legal writing, namely a check, for the payment of money or property. The punishment for a check fraud conviction in California can be severe.
If an individual is facing check fraud charges in California, they should contact a criminal defense attorney immediately. It is essential for an individual to consult with an attorney early in the criminal process to ensure that their attorney has the necessary time to build an effective case on their behalf.
How Does Check Fraud Occur?
Check fraud is a criminal offense involving the deceptive or illegal use of checks. In the majority of cases, check fraud involves an individual attempting to make a purchase or complete a transaction using a check that has been altered, stolen, faked, or is otherwise invalid.
There are numerous other ways to commit check fraud as well, not just attempting to make purchases. As newer banking technologies evolve, so do the ways to commit check fraud.
In California, check fraud cases typically occur when an individual has the intent to sign or endorse a check using the name of another individual without their permission. Check fraud may include not only the fabrication of a check but also putting false writing on an otherwise genuine check.
There are numerous different types of check fraud, including:
- Paper hanging: This involves writing checks on closed accounts or ordering and then writing checks on closed accounts;
- Check theft: This occurs when an individual steals a check and, after the check is stolen, uses that check to purchase goods or make a deposit into their account;
- Identity check theft: This occurs when an individual opens up an account in another individual’s name and writes a check that is not there;
- Chemical alteration: This occurs when an individual uses a chemical to erase the ink on a check so they can write something else;
- Counterfeiting: This typically entails a large number of checks that are created fraudulently with the intent of stealing from an individual;
- Forged signature: This typically involves the use of legitimate blank checks, with false writing or fabrication of the actual check owner’s signature;
- Check washing: This involves using chemicals to remove information from a check;
- Forgery: Forgery occurs when an individual knowingly alters, creates, or uses a written document, such as a check, with the intent to commit fraud; and
- Money order fraud: Money order fraud occurs when an individual convinces the victim to give them a check in exchange for a money order and puts the money order into another account.
What Does the State Have to Prove to Convict Me of California Check Fraud?
As with any criminal offense, all of the elements of the crime must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt to convict a defendant of a crime. The elements of check fraud in California include:
- The defendant had possession of the check for payment;
- The defendant knew the check was altered or false;
- The defendant intended to defraud another individual or entity by making, passing, attempting to use, or using the check;
- The intent in a criminal charge is shown by circumstantial evidence, such as the acts or knowledge of the defendant; and
- The defendant possessed the document with the intent to use or pass the document as a real document.
What Are the Penalties for Committing Check Fraud in California?
In the State of California, the penalties a defendant will face for a conviction of check fraud will depend on whether they were charged with a misdemeanor or felony. In California, check fraud is classified as a wobbler, meaning a defendant can be charged with a felony or a misdemeanor.
The prosecution will examine the facts of the case in addition to the defendant’s criminal history to determine whether to charge the crime as a misdemeanor or as a felony. Misdemeanor check fraud is punishable by up to 1 year in jail, criminal fines of up to $1,000, or a combination of both.
A felony check fraud conviction is punishable by probation and up to 1 year in jail, or 16 months to 3 years in jail and criminal fines of up to $10,000. How severe the punishment is will depend on the amount of money that was involved in the fraudulent action.
The more money that was involved in the check fraud, the more severe the sentence will likely be. An individual might have been charged with check fraud or has committed check fraud and is concerned about the charges and punishments they may face. In that case, they should consult with a local California attorney.
What Is a Felony Check Fraud Amount in California?
As noted above, check fraud is a wobbler offense that may be charged as a misdemeanor or a felony in California. When deciding how to charge a defendant, the prosecution will examine the facts of the case as well as whether the defendant has previously engaged in other theft crimes.
There is no number at which the charges change from a misdemeanor to a felony; that choice is up to the prosecution. It is important to note that in California, under Penal Code 487, grand theft involves making or passing a fraudulent check for more than $950 or using a fraudulent check that exceeds $950 by cashing it or exchanging it for goods.
In the State of California, grand theft is also classified as a wobbler offense.
What Are the Defenses I Can Use to Fight Check Fraud Charges?
There are defenses that may be available to a defendant against check fraud charges, including:
- Lack of intent: A defendant has to have the required intent to commit a check fraud offense. If the defendant can show they did not have the intent to take out money, goods, services, or other things of value, they may not be convicted;
- Lack of knowledge: In order for a defendant to be guilty of check fraud, they must have been aware the check was altered or fraudulent. If the defendant can show they did not know the document was false, they can use it as a defense;
- Consent to write the check: In order for an individual to be charged with check fraud, they must have intended to defraud another individual or entity by making, passing, using, or attempting to use the fraudulent check. However, if the defendant had permission or consent to write the check, the act would not be considered fraudulent.
Should I Consult a Lawyer for Help?
You may have been charged with violating California’s check fraud laws, or you may have questions about these laws. If so, it is essential to consult with a California fraud lawyer. Your lawyer can address any questions or concerns you may have and advise you of your available legal options and defenses.
If you are convinced of a felony, it will affect much more than just your criminal record. It will affect your ability to obtain employment, own a firearm, and have custody of your children. Your attorney may be able to negotiate the changes against you down to a misdemeanor if the facts support it.