Forgery Laws: Forging a Signature, Charge, Crime, and Punishment

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 What is Forgery?

Forgery is making, using, altering, or possessing a false document with the intent to commit fraud. Forgery can be the creation of a false document, or changing an authentic one. Forgery is a crime that is classified as a felony in all fifty states and by the federal government.

There are several elements to the crime of forgery, and all must be proven before someone can be found guilty:

  • A person must make, alter, use, or possess a false document. Forgery can be creating a false document from scratch, or altering an otherwise genuine document in a material way. The alteration is material if it affects a legal right.
    • For example, a document like a will may be otherwise valid according to state law, but if someone other than the testator signs it, the will is a forgery. A forged signature misrepresents the identity of the person whose will it is, and that has significant legal consequences.
  • The writing must have legal significance. Not just any false writing will be considered criminal forgery. Common examples of documents with legal significance include contracts, passports, drivers licenses, deeds, receipts, checks, wills, certifications, professional licenses, prescriptions, historical papers, and art.
    • Legally significant means that the document affects legal rights or obligations. Signing someone else’s name on a friendly letter would not be forgery because it is probably not legally significant.
    • On the other hand, signing someone else’s name on a letter of recommendation for a job may be forgery because it might affect employment and that is legally significant.
  • The writing must be false. The writing must have been created or changed in a way that makes it appear that the document represents something that it is not. The fundamental meaning of the document must have changed because of the forgery.
  • Intent to defraud. The person committing the forgery must have done so with the specific intent to defraud or trick another person or entity.

What Documents are Commonly Forged?

Documents of legal significance that are commonly forged include:

  • Identification documents like drivers licenses or passports
  • Checks
  • Wills
  • Drug prescriptions
  • Deeds
  • Stock certificates
  • Contracts
  • Patents
  • Military documents
  • Historical documents
  • Works of art and certificates of authentication

What are the Penalties for Forgery?

Forgery laws can differ from state to state. In all states forgery can be considered a felony. Possible punishments include prison time, fines, probation, and restitution, where the defendant compensates the victim for money or property that was lost because of the forgery.

Some states punish forgery crimes based on the type of forgery that was committed. New York classifies forgery in “degrees” based on the type of document that was forged.

  • First Degree Forgery: currency (also known as counterfeiting), stamps, securities, stocks, or bonds. First degree forgery is a felony and could be punishable by anywhere from 1-2 years to 15 years in prison.
  • Second Degree Forgery: deeds, wills, contracts, government issued documents, public records, tokens or certificates used in place of money for goods or services (like subway tokens), or medical prescriptions. Second degree forgery is also a felony. The punishment might be anywhere from 2-7 years in prison.
  • Third Degree Forgery: any other types of documents. Third degree forgery is a misdemeanor. The punishment is a maximum of one year in prison or three years probation. The defendant may also have to pay a fine of up to $1,000 or twice what they gained from the crime.

Are There Any Defenses to Forgery?

Some potential defenses to forgery include:

  • Lack of Intent: The defendant in a forgery case must have intended to defraud, deceive, or trick the victim with the forged document. Intent is a key element to proving forgery, so without it the defendant cannot be found guilty.
  • Lack of Capacity or Knowledge: The defendant must have known that the document was forged to be guilty of forgery. Knowledge is key to proving the defendant had the required intent. If they did not know, or did not have the mental capacity to know, they have a defense.
  • Coercion: If the defendant was forced to commit the forgery because they or someone they loved was threatened, they have a defense.
  • Consent: a defendant has the defense of consent if they forged the document with the consent or cooperation of the alleged victim.

Most defenses to forgery address the required element of the intent to defraud or deceive. Proving that the defendant did not have specific intent is a complete defense because it means the defendant did not have the required mental state to commit the crime.

Do I Need an Attorney If I Am Facing Charges for Forgery?

Forgery cases can be complicated and the potential penalties for being found guilty are serious. If you have been charged with forgery you should consult with a criminal defense lawyer. An experienced attorney can review the facts of your case, help you understand the law, and counsel you on your possible defenses. They can also represent you in court.

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