Forgery is defined as using, making, altering, or possessing a false document with the intent to commit fraud. Fraud, or criminal fraud, is a type of white collar crime which usually involves a scheme to deceive other individuals for financial gain. Forgery can be committed by creating a new false document or by altering a genuine document. All fifty states in the United States classify forgery as a felony

There are several elements which must be proven for an individual to be found guilty of forgery. These include:

  • Making, altering, using or possessing a fake document;
  • Legally significant writing within the document;
  • The writing in the document is false; and
  • There was an intent to defraud.

Forgery can be committed by either creating a false document or by altering an existing document in a material way. Altering the document in a material way means the alteration affects a legal right. 

For example, a scheming child may sign the last will and testament of her father giving all of his property to her upon his passing. The will itself may be valid but if anyone other than the testator, or the father in this case, signs the will, it is a forgery. The forged signature has significant legal consequences because it misrepresents the identity of the testator.

For a forgery to occur, the writing must have legal significance. Legal significance means that the document affects an individual’s legal rights or obligations. Not just any writing that is false will be classified as criminal forgery. 

Examples of documents with legal significance include checks, wills, certifications, professional licenses, prescriptions, and others. Signing someone’s name to a letter talking about the weather would not be legally significant. However, signing another person’s name to a job recommendation may be legally significant because it may affect their employment.

For a writing to be considered forgery, the writing must be false. A false writing is a writing that was created or changed in such a way that the document appears to be something it is not. The forgery must have changed the fundamental meaning of the document.

Lastly, the individual who created or altered the document must have done so with the intent to defraud. This means the individual must have created or altered the document with the specific intent to misrepresent the document’s meaning to another individual or entity, such as a bank. 

A common example of forgery is a forged check. In this case, the individual may have filled out someone else’s blank check to pay themselves. Or an individual may alter the amount of a check to increase their financial gain.

How Does California Law Define Forgery?

Forgery laws are different in each state. In all states, forgery can be a felony. Possible punishment for felony forgery can include fines, a prison sentence, probation and restitution. Restitution is a process where a defendant makes payments to compensate victims for money or property lost as a result of the forgery.

California forgery laws define forgery as intent to defraud an institution or person by one of the following means:

  • Use of an unauthorized document;
  • Creating a false document; and/or
  • Altering a document in a material way.

Forgery in California is considered a wobbler under criminal law. This means it can be charged as a misdemeanor or a felony. The prosecutor will determine which charge will be brought. The charge is usually based on the type of item forged and the value of the property or money stolen. 

What Does a Prosecutor Have to Prove to Convict Me of Forgery?

In order to convict an individual of forgery, a prosecutor must prove two elements beyond a reasonable doubt. The burden of proof in a criminal case is beyond a reasonable doubt. In criminal cases, the defendant is presumed innocent and the burden of proof rests with the prosecutor. 

To convict a defendant in a forgery case, the prosecutor must prove:

  • The defendant committed forgery by creating a false document, materially altering an existing document, or by using an unauthorized document; and 
  • The defendant committed the criminal forgery with the intent to commit fraud.

Types of evidence that may be used in court to prove a forgery case may include eyewitness and document evidence. A witness may testify regarding the intent of a document they created and how it was altered. Document evidence may be introduced to show the state of the original document and compare it to the fraudulent document used in the forgery.

Is Forgery Considered a Felony or Misdemeanor in the State?

As previously noted, forgery in California can be charged as a felony or a misdemeanor. The charge is usually determined by the type of fraud and the amount of property or money involved. The prosecutor will determine whether a forgery is charged as a felony or a misdemeanor.

In most cases, a defendant will be charged with felony forgery if the value of the forgery exceeds $950.00. The statute of limitations (filing deadline) for felony forgery is four years after the crime is discovered or completed, whichever is later.

A defendant can be charged with a misdemeanor if the value of the forgery is less than $950.00 and the document forged is a check, money order or similar instrument. The statute of limitations for misdemeanor forgery is one year after the alleged commission of the forgery.

What is the Criminal Sentence for Forgery?

Punishment for forgery depends on whether the defendant was charged with a misdemeanor or a felony. The sentence for a misdemeanor is up to one year in jail. The sentence can also include a maximum fine of $1,000.00 and misdemeanor probation. 

The sentence for a felony is one to three years in jail. The sentence can also include a maximum fine of $10,000.00 and felony probation.

Sentences for forgery may also include restitution. Restitution requires the defendant to make payments, usually to the court, which are distributed to the victim to make up for lost property or money.

Forgery is usually prosecuted at the state level but, in some cases, can be considered a felony under federal law. This may occur when the defendant commits identity theft, or assumes the identity of another person. Other examples of federal forgery include making counterfeit money, forging federal documents such as immigraiton documents, or forgery with the intent to defraud the federal government. 

A forgery becomes a federal offense if the document used in the forgery is carried or mailed across state lines. A forgery also becomes a federal offense if the forgery takes place in multiple states.

What Are the Consequences of a Forgery Conviction?

A forgery conviction may have consequences beyond a criminal record. A forgery conviction is considered an offense involving moral turpitude in California. A crime involving moral turpitude may result in a non-citizen being deported or marked as inadmissible.

A forgery conviction may also affect a defendant’s gun rights, as a convicted felon in California may not own or possess a gun. If a defendant is convicted of a felony, they will lose California gun rights.

How do I Report Forgery in California?

There are different ways to report fraud in California. If property or money has been stolen, an individual can report the theft to local law enforcement. Many law enforcement agencies have financial crimes divisions. Most agencies provide a website with contact information which may include a phone number or an online reporting system. 

At the federal level, fraud can be reported to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). An individual can report fraud to the FTC by calling 1-877-382-4357 or by using the FTC compliance assistant, available online.

Should I Hire a Lawyer for Help with Forgery Issues? 

Yes, it is important to consult with an experienced criminal lawyer to help with your forgery case. If you have been charged with fraud, a criminal attorney can assist with possible defenses in your case, case preparation, and review possible punishments if you are convicted. 

It is in your best interest to hire a local criminal lawyer who will be familiar with the laws in your area. The local criminal lawyer will also be familiar with local court procedures and laws that apply in your state.