Check fraud is a severe crime in California, punishable by lengthy jail or prison time and hefty penalties. The offense could be convicted as a misdemeanor or felony, depending on the details of the case. A conviction for check fraud leaves you with a damaging criminal record that could affect several aspects of your life, including your efforts to find suitable employment or access vital services.
But, you could avoid these severe consequences if you hire the services of a competent criminal attorney from a reliable legal firm. If you face check fraud charges in Chula Vista, Chula Vista Criminal Attorney could guide you through the legal process and fight with you against your charges. We may also be able to compel the court to reduce or dismiss your charges.
Legal Definition of California Check Fraud
California laws against check fraud make it unlawful for anyone to write, make or give out a fraudulent or fake check. People who commit this offense do so for financial gain at the expense of others. Check fraud causes victims across the world millions of dollars every year. Thus, it is a prevalent and highly punishable offense in most states in the United States. If you face criminal charges for California check fraud today, it is advisable to hire proper legal help. A competent criminal attorney will study the details of your case to advise you on the way forward. He/she will also plan a strong defense against your charges to help you escape the severe consequences of a conviction.
The law against California check fraud is under PC 476. It makes it illegal for any person to possess, present or attempt to pass a counterfeit or fake check or one in which the payor’s signature has been forged. The statute provides several facts or elements of the case which help define check fraud. The district attorney must prove all these facts beyond a reasonable doubt for the court to find you guilty of the charges. The elements of this offense are:
- You made or possessed, used or passed, or attempted to use or pass a false, altered or fictitious bill or check for payments of property or money.
- You knew that the document in your possession was fake or altered
- You did so intending to defraud another person, institution, or organization
The court can only convict you of the charges if the prosecutor can prove the three elements beyond a reasonable doubt. The court will expect the prosecutor to prove that when you possessed a false or altered check, you intended to use or pass it as a genuine check for undeserved benefits.
Let us look at some of the elements of this offense in greater detail to understand the meaning of this statute and its implications:
Fake or Fictitious Check
Check fraud involves the use or exchange of fake or fictitious documents. A fake or fictitious document is illegal or unreal. This type of check might include the following:
- A check that is drawn from a non-existing bank or bank account
- A check that a non-existing person endorses
Use, Pass or Alter a Check
You are guilty of check fraud when you use, pass, or attempt to use or pass a fake or modified check. It means that any attempt to represent a fake check as authentic or genuine will be considered check fraud. The representation could be in actions or words, made either directly or indirectly.
You could have altered a genuine document by doing the following:
- Adding information to it
- Erasing some info from it
- Changing some information on the document
An altered check will look genuine. That is why it could be used to defraud individuals or organizations. Altered information could be the name, routing number, or amount. When you alter, erase or change some information from a genuine document, you transform a legal document into a counterfeit, which is a grave offense.
The Knowledge that the Check is Ingenuine or Unreal
You will be guilty under California PC 476 if you knowingly use or pass a fake or changed check. The district attorney must prove your knowledge that the check was not genuine. If you did not do so knowingly, the court might dismiss your charges.
The Intent to Defraud
The intent is a critical element of this offense, without which you may not be guilty under California PC 476. If you face charges for check fraud, the district attorney must prove in court that you intended to trick or deceive someone else when you passed or used a false or modified check.
Note that it is not necessary to succeed in defrauding the other person or another person who incurred a loss through your actions. Most important is that you intended to defraud another party, or another party might have incurred a loss due to your actions.
What If You Didn’t Give the False or Altered Check to Anyone?
Questions always arise on what would happen if you never gave the altered check to anyone. California PC 476 is apparent in what the law considers a crime. You don’t need to pass the falsified check to another person. Merely possessing or altering a genuine check is enough to warrant a conviction. The most likely question by the jury will be your reason for obtaining a fake check or changing a genuine one. It could be that you intended to use it in the future. In that case, you will be guilty of check fraud.
What If You Didn't Alter The Check in the First Place?
Your charges will still apply even though someone else altered the check. What matters is that you knew that the document in your possession was false, and you intended to use it for unfair gain. Most people who commit check fraud seek the help of others in altering genuine documents. That doesn't make them less guilty.
If you successfully used a fake or altered check, you will still be guilty even if you later experienced remorse and offered to pay back the money you had unfairly gained from your victim. The prosecutor will continue the charges as long as you were in possession or used a falsified check to gain from another party unfairly. Offering to pay back the money or feeling remorse after the act is not enough to defend yourself against check fraud charges. However, it might help reduce your sentence after conviction.
Legal Defense Strategies Against California Check Fraud Charges
Check Fraud is a grave offense, attracting severe consequences for those convicted. But, you can avoid a conviction and its implications if you partner with a competent criminal defense lawyer to fight the charges you face. An experienced attorney will develop a solid defense against your charges to compel the jury to reduce or dismiss your charges. He/she would do so by using some of the legal defense strategies allowed for this offense. The most common of these are:
Lack of Knowledge
Check fraud charges require you to have known that the check you were using or passing was fake or altered. If your situation lacks that knowledge, then the charges will not hold. Many people innocently use or give fake documents without realizing they are counterfeit or altered. Another person may have passed the altered check to you to use on their behalf. In that case, you may not be guilty under California check fraud laws.
You need the help of an aggressive criminal defense lawyer to convince the court of your lack of knowledge. If this defense strategy works, the judge will dismiss your charges.
California PC 476 requires you to have acted with an intent to defraud another person, institution, or organization. The prosecutor is required to prove this intent. Otherwise, your charges might not hold. It is challenging to prove intent even for the most experienced prosecutor. That is why you may want to use this defense strategy to have the court drop your charges.
You may have jokingly altered a check and tried to use or pass it to gauge the other person’s reaction. In that case, your intent will be different from defrauding the person of their money or property. Without the intent to defraud, you may not be guilty under this statute.
The Alteration was Obvious
If you face check fraud charges for altering a check, the law requires that the alteration be as invincible as possible such that no person can tell that the check is not genuine in the first place. Therefore, if the alterations were evident, and anyone could tell that the check was altered, you may not be guilty under this statute.
It could be that someone else forced you to alter the check, and since you did not want the person to gain unfairly, you decided to make the alterations obvious. That way, the recipient will automatically know that the check is not genuine and will not process it for payment.
It is not unusual for a person to commit a severe offense through mistaken belief. It could be that you issued a check without realizing that the account did not have sufficient money. Or, you may have given a check with an honest belief that you had overdraft protection. You made a grave mistake in any of these cases due to a mistaken belief.
California check fraud laws only allow conviction for a person who intentionally commits check fraud. If your actions were not intentional, and your goal was not to unfairly gain at the expense of another person or institution, the court will not find you guilty of your charges.
You Were a Victim of Identity Theft
Identity theft occurs when a person uses the name and other identifying information for unfair gain. For unfair gain, a person might have used your name and bank account details to alter a genuine check. In that case, you will not be guilty of check fraud. An aggressive criminal defense lawyer will know the evidence to present in court as proof that you are a victim of identity theft. If he/she manages to convince the court of your innocence, the court will dismiss your charges.
Identity theft is a common offense in California and other parts of the world. Hundreds of people have become victims of identity theft, and some are paying for crimes they haven’t committed due to stolen identities. Therefore, it will not come as a surprise to the jury when you cite identity theft as the reason for your arrest.
You Had Consent to Change the Check
You would not be guilty of this offense if you had its owner’s consent to change some information on the check. It could be that the payee wanted to increase the amount on the check or simply change the names or other details. Note that you will need proof of this consent for the jury to dismiss your charges.
The Penalties After Conviction
A person is guilty of forgery if they violate this statute. Forgery is a wobbler offense in California, prosecuted as a misdemeanor or felony. The prosecutor’s decision is based on the details of the matter and the defendant’s criminal history.
If you face misdemeanor charges for check fraud, you will likely receive the following penalties after conviction:
- A maximum of one year in jail
- A fine of not more than $1,000
If you face felony charges for check fraud, you will likely receive the following penalties upon conviction:
- A maximum of three years in jail
- A fine of not more than $10,000
A conviction will leave you with a criminal record that could affect various aspects of your life, including social and career life. For instance, you may face challenges finding suitable employment after a conviction. You will also likely lose the close connection you enjoyed with people before the sentence. That is why you deserve a strong defense if you face check fraud charges today. A proper criminal defense could cause the court to dismiss or reduce your charges.
Other Consequences of a Conviction Under California PC 476
You will likely face additional consequences after a conviction under this statute.
For instance, a conviction for check fraud could impact your immigration status. If you are a non-American citizen, certain offenses could cause you to face deportation or be declared inadmissible. Check fraud is one offense that carries severe immigration consequences for those convicted. It means that after a conviction, you will likely be deported if you are already living in the U.S or marked as inadmissible into the U.S if you are trying to obtain entry into the country. It depends on the details of your case and your criminal history.
Additionally, a conviction for check fraud could impact your gun rights. California has strict gun laws prohibiting certain people from obtaining or possessing a firearm. Among these people are those with a felony sentence in their criminal record. Thus, if you face a felony sentence for check fraud, you will likely lose your gun rights. It means that you will not purchase or possess a firearm in the state. If you already have a gun, you will be required to surrender it immediately after conviction.
Expungement of a Check Fraud Conviction Record
Fortunately for you, you may avoid some of the severe consequences of a conviction by having the court expunge your conviction record. However, that will work after serving the complete sentence given by the judge.
California expungement laws, under PC 1203.4, allow everyone with a criminal record to petition for expungement on the following conditions:
- That they have completed probation
- They have completed the jail term
If you violated your probation terms, you might still be able to petition for the expungement of your criminal record. However, that is at the judge’s discretion.
If the court grants your request, the expungement will release you of virtually all punishments and disabilities arising from the conviction. It means that your criminal record will not impact some aspects of your life, including your efforts to find suitable employment. However, you will be required to disclose your criminal history when applying for government jobs.
California Check Fraud and Related Offenses
California laws have several other offenses that are related to check fraud. The most common of these are:
Forger — California PC 470
You could face charges for forgery in California if you falsify a signature or fraudulently alter a document. The following are acts that could lead to forgery charges if committed in California:
- Signing the name of a different or fictitious person on a legal document
- Forging or counterfeiting the seal or handwriting of another person
- Altering, corrupting, or falsifying any information in a legal document, will, judgment or codicil
- Falsely making, modifying, forging, or counterfeiting specific documents like bonds, checks, or money orders
You could face forgery charges if you sign the name of a known or fictitious doctor on a fake prescription to obtain controlled drugs. A person who inserts a new page or additional information on another person’s will to receive more money after their demise could also face forgery charges.
Like check fraud, forgery is a wobbler offense, prosecuted as either a misdemeanor or felony. A misdemeanor conviction attracts a jail time of up to one year, while a felony sentence is punished by a maximum jail time of three years. In the place of jail time, the judge might send you on probation, either a misdemeanor or felony, depending on the details of your case.
Forgery is also a crime of moral turpitude. It means that it carries serious immigration consequences upon conviction. You could face deportation if you are a non-immigrant already living in the U.S. If not, you will be marked as inadmissible and may never obtain legal documents to migrate to the U.S.
Writing Bad Checks — California PC 476a.
You could face criminal charges for writing bad checks if you pass or write a bad check, knowing too well that the account from which you have written the check doesn’t have enough funds to cover that payment. It is a severe crime that could lead to felony charges and harsh penalties upon conviction. The prosecutor could also charge the offense as a misdemeanor, depending on the value of the amount on the bad check.
California laws have two ‘bad check’ laws under Penal Code 476. The first and primary offense is check fraud, and the second is writing bad checks.
You could face charges under this law if you write a check worth $200 for payments of an online purchase, knowing too well that the checking account has less than $50.
If charged as a misdemeanor (for amounts below $950 and with no prior criminal record), you will likely receive a maximum of one year in jail and a fine of not more than $1,000.
But if the amount on the bad check is $950 or more, or you have a previous criminal record, the offense is a wobbler, prosecuted as either a misdemeanor or felony. If convicted of a felony for writing a bad check, you will likely receive a maximum of three years in jail and a fine of not more than $10,000.
Additionally, the victim can sue the defendant in a civil court for damages resulting from the bad check.
Find a Competent Criminal Attorney Near Me
Are you or someone you know facing charges for check fraud in Chula Vista?
It is advisable to partner with a competent criminal attorney from the beginning of the legal process. It makes the process smooth and helps you avoid costly mistakes that could negatively impact your situation. At Chula Vista Criminal Attorney, we have a team of highly skilled and experienced criminal attorneys that could simplify the legal process and plan a solid defense against your charges. Call us at 619-877-6894, and let us fight by your side for a favorable outcome of your case.