Forgery is a white collar crime, and is generally defined as the creation, alteration, forging, or imitation 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 vary from state to state; generally, they all require the intent to defraud or deceive. It is important to note that forgery is punishable as a felony in all fifty states. As of recent, forging documents has also become a wide-spread way to carry out identity theft.
Forgery is covered by both state and federal laws, and only documents with legal significance are considered to be protected under forgery laws. Personal checks are the most commonly forged documents, but other forged documents that may be protected by forgery laws include:
- Deeds and titles to property;
- Securities, stocks, and bonds (these are considered the most serious of offenses);
- Court seals and records;
- Corporate documents;
- Currency (more accurately known as counterfeiting);
- Money orders and promissory notes; and
- Documents related to a person’s identity, such as birth certificates, social security cards, etc.
Forgery of wills, contracts, public records, and commercial instruments may also be addressed by individual state criminal laws; however, this will vary state to state. Additionally, there is an extensive list of documents whose forgery will result in a federal offense. A very specific example is using a forged military ID to deceive airline workers. Forging treasury checks is another specific example.
As previously mentioned, the punishments for forgery vary based upon state laws as well as whether the forgery was committed on a federal level. As noted above, forgery is considered a felony in all fifty states.
Thus, penalties include jail or prison time, considerable fines, probation, and occasionally restitution such as compensating the victim for their money or goods stolen as a direct result of the forgery. State laws provide a wide variety of punishments for forgery, thus judges are able to determine the most appropriate punishment for each specific forgery crime.
Depending on the nature of the forged document or item, the crime of forgery may be classified into three degrees:
1. First Degree Forgery: This involves the actual presentation or use of a forged document with the intent to defraud. An example of first degree forgery in New York is when the forged instrument is securities, stocks, bonds, or currency (counterfeiting);
2. Second Degree Forgery: This involves deeds, government issued documents, public records, and medical prescriptions. Second degree forgery generally involves creating or possessing a forged document before the defendant is able to present it to a victim; and
3. Third Degree Forgery: Many states consider third degree forgery to be a misdemeanor, as opposed to a felony, such as with the first two degrees. Any other types of documents generally fall under third degree forgery. This could include mere possession of the forged writing, or in some instances, uttering a forged document.
a. Uttering a forged document occurs when the defendant references a forged document, or represents a forged document as genuine. This is considered a separate offense from forgery. Even if the person did not create the document being referred to, they may be found guilty of uttering a forged document.
As previously mentioned, first and second degree forgery carry with them felony charges, while third degree forgery carried misdemeanor charges. Felony charges can result in heavy fines, possible imprisonment in a federal facility, as well as loss or suspension of various civil privileges. Additionally, any prison time could be greater than one year. Misdemeanor charges will result in fines, and jail time spent in a local or county facility, not to exceed one year.
In order for there to be a forgery conviction, the prosecution must prove the following elements:
- Making or Altering : Simply making a false document is not the only definition of forgery; altering a pre-existing document is also considered to be forgery. The alteration must be proved to be “material,” or affecting a legal right;
- False Writing: The writing in question must have legal significance, such as driver’s licenses, wills, etc. And, the writing in question must be false. This seems like a no-brainer when discussing forgery.
- Essentially, it is not enough for false statements to be inserted into the writing in question; those falsehoods must fundamentally change the meaning of the writing itself;
- Intent to Defraud, or Specific Intent: A person must have the specific intent to defraud or mislead someone else when committing forgery in order for a forgery conviction to exist. This condition is in place to protect those who may not have known that the documents were false when they possessed or signed them.
Thus, if any of these elements are not met or proven, it may serve as a defense to forgery charges. Other defenses to forgery include:
- The defendant having good reason to believe that they had the authority to make such a document; or
- The defendant was in fact authorized to use another person’s signature.
Forgery is a serious crime with felony implications. Whether you are charged with forgery, or are a victim of forgery, you will need to consult with a criminal defense attorney. A knowledgeable and skilled criminal defense attorney will be able to explain to you all the details of your state’s forgery laws, as well as what you’re being charged with and what your options are. They will also represent you in court if necessary.