Forgery is defined as the creation, altering, forging, or imitating of any document with the intent to defraud another person. Making a signature without authorization or causing another person to fraudulently sign a document are also covered under forgery laws.
Forgery laws may vary from state to state, but they all generally require the intent to defraud or deceive. Recently, forging documents has become a widespread method of achieving identity theft.
What Is Required to Prove Forgery?
All of the following elements must be satisfied when proving a person guilty of forgery:
- False creation of document: The defendant must have manufactured, typed, printed, engraved, or handwritten the false document
- Materially altering the document: The person must have changed an existing, genuine document in some way (for example, falsely filling in blanks on a form)
- Capability of defrauding: The document or writing must look sufficiently genuine to be capable of defrauding the average person
- Legal significance: The document must claim to have some sort of legal significance to affect the other person’s rights. Writings with only social significance (such as a novel or poem) generally cannot be the subject of forgery
- Intent to deceive or defraud: The defendant must use the document with the intent to deceive the other person.
What Types of Documents Are Subject to Forgery Laws?
Forgery is covered by both state and federal laws. Only documents with legal significance are considered under forgery laws. The most commonly forged documents are personal checks. Other types of documents that may be forged are:
Forgery of wills, contracts, public records, and commercial instruments may also be addressed by individual state criminal laws, though these may vary by state.
In addition, federal law maintains an extensive list of documents whose forgery will result in federal charges. For example, using a forged military ID to deceive airline workers is a federal offense. Forging treasury checks is another example of a federal offense.
What Are the Legal Punishments for Forgery?
Depending on the nature of the forged document, forgery may be classified into three degrees. The first two are considered to be felonies and the third is usually classified as a misdemeanor:
- First degree forgery: This involves the actual presentation or use of a forged document with the intent to defraud
- Second degree forgery: This usually involves creating or possessing a forged document before the defendant is able to present it to a victim
- Third degree forgery: This also involves mere possession of the forged writing, or in some instances, uttering a forged document (see below).
Uttering a forged document occurs when the defendant makes reference to a forged document or represents a forged document as genuine. It is a separate offense from forgery. A person may be guilty of uttering a forged document even if they did not create the document being referred to.
Felony forgery charges will result in heavy fines, possible imprisonment in a federal facility, and loss or suspension of various civil privileges. Misdemeanor charges will result in fines and jail time of less than one year.
Are There Any Defenses to Forgery?
In some jurisidictions, it is a valid defense to forgery if the defendant had good reason to believe that they had authority to make such a document. Also, it is a valid defense if the person did not have the required specific intent to use the document to deceive another person. If the forgery involves the use of another person’s signature, it is a defense if the person in fact authorized the defendant to use their signature.