An individual commits forgery when he/she creates or alters a document intending to deceive or defraud another person or entity. Forgery involves falsely making or modifying a document, including checks, contracts, or identification cards, to obtain some kind of financial gain or benefit. Committing forgery under California state law is a crime whose conviction results in misdemeanor or felony penalties. These penalties are consequential. Engaging an experienced criminal defense attorney to help you fight the charges is in your best interest. Contact the Chula Vista Criminal Attorney for assistance.

Forgery Under California Law

Penal Code 470 makes it a crime for individuals to make, alter, forge, or counterfeit a written instrument or alter a digital image intending to defraud another person or entity. Written instruments can include checks, contracts, deeds, or other legal documents.

Penal Code 470 also covers the act of passing or possessing a forged document, with the knowledge that it is fake or altered, to deceive or defraud another person.

Examples of conduct that constitutes forgery under California law comprise the following:

  • Creating a fake check and attempting to deposit it into a bank account
  • Forging someone else's signature on a legal document
  • Altering a contract to change the terms and then trying to enforce the modified document

Elements Prosecutors Must Prove

The state must make its case for a jury to find you guilty of forgery. Therefore, prosecutors should prove the following elements for a jury to return a guilty verdict:

  • You made, altered, forged, or counterfeited a written instrument or modified a digital image
  • You had the specific intent to defraud another person or entity
  • You knew the document or digital image was false, altered, or counterfeit
  • You passed, offered, or possessed the instrument or digital image with the intent to defraud

     a) Writings Covered By The Forgery Statute

Under California Penal Code 470, forgery involves making, altering, counterfeiting, or falsifying a “writing.” Legally, "writing" encompasses any document, instrument, record, or object containing written or printed matter or an image representing words. Examples of writings covered by PC 470 include, but are not limited to:

  • Checks, money orders, or other financial instruments
  • Deeds, mortgages, or other real estate documents
  • Powers of attorney or other legal documents
  • Contracts, agreements, or invoices
  • Licenses, permits, or identification cards
  • Tickets, coupons, or passes
  • Wills or other testamentary documents

Additionally, the law applies to making or altering a digital image. For example, changing a photo or document into a digital format intending to deceive or defraud would be considered forgery.

Note: The writing or digital image must not be completed or fully executed to qualify as forgery under PC 470. Even an incomplete or blank document can be considered “writing” and subject to the law's provisions if made or altered to deceive or defraud another.

Forgery By Signing Another Person’s Name To Documents

PC 470(a) makes it a crime to sign someone else's name on documents. Under this section, the prosecution must prove the following elements:

  • You knowingly signed another person's name or pretended to be another
  • You had the specific intent to defraud another individual or entity
  • You knew signing the other person's name or pretending to be the other person was false or fraudulent
  • You passed, offered, or possessed the document intending to defraud

Examples of situations where individuals commit a PC 470(a) violation include:

  • Signing another person's name on a check, contract, or legal document
  • Using a false name to obtain a loan or credit

Forgery Through Faking a Handwriting or Seal

Forgery under PC 470(b) can also occur by faking a seal or handwriting. In these cases, prosecutors must prove the following elements:

  • You knowingly falsified, forged, or counterfeited a seal or handwriting
  • You had the specific intent to defraud another person or entity
  • You knew the seal or handwriting was false, altered, or counterfeit
  • You passed, offered, or possessed the seal or handwriting intending to defraud

Seals and handwriting are often used to authenticate documents and make them official. For example, an individual could use a forged signature on a check or an altered seal on a legal document to deceive others and gain financially.

Forgery By Fabricating or Changing Specific Documents

You violate PC 470(c) if the following are true:

  • You knowingly faked, altered, or counterfeited a specific document, including a will, deed, or contract
  • You had the explicit intent to defraud another person or entity
  • You knew that the document was false, altered, or counterfeit
  • You passed, offered, or possessed the document with the intent to defraud

Forgery by faking or changing specific documents can take many forms. For example, a person could change the terms of a contract or the ownership of a deed to gain financial benefit or deceive others. In other cases, a person could create a false document, like a will or trust, to take advantage of an inheritance or estate.

     b) An Intent To Commit Fraud

An intent to commit fraud, also known as fraudulent intent, is a crucial element. Prosecutors prove intent to defraud by demonstrating the following:

An intent to commit fraud means that you acted with the knowledge that the forged or altered document was false. Further, you intended to use the document to deceive others and gain financial or legal benefit. Intent to commit fraud also includes deliberate attempts to cause harm or injury to another person or entity. This act is evident when individuals create false financial records or legal documents.

Proving intent to commit fraud can be difficult. It often involves subjective and circumstantial evidence. Prosecutors will rely on your actions and statements and any other available evidence to build their case for intent to commit fraud.

Circumstantial and Direct Proof in proving forgery

Prosecutors rely on direct and circumstantial evidence to prove the elements of a forgery charge.

Direct evidence directly proves the fact in question without any inference or presumption. For example, if a witness saw you sign a false document, this would be direct evidence of your guilt. Direct evidence is deemed stronger than circumstantial evidence. It provides a clear and objective account of events.

In contrast, circumstantial evidence does not provide direct proof of a fact. It enables a reasonable inference about the fact to be drawn. In a forgery case, circumstantial evidence includes the presence of the defendant's fingerprints on a forged document or proof that you had access to the tools or materials used to create the forgery.

While circumstantial evidence is less strong than direct evidence, it can be highly persuasive and successful in building a solid case.

Legal Defenses You Can Raise to Challenge Forgery Charges

There are several legal defenses you could raise to challenge forgery charges. Some common defense strategies to forgery charges include:

     a) Lack of Intent

Lack of intent is a common legal defense used to challenge forgery charges. Prosecutors must prove you intended to commit fraud or deceive another for the jury to return a guilty verdict. The courts would dismiss your charges if you did not have the necessary intent.

There are several ways in which a defense attorney establishes a lack of intent.

For example, your attorney can show you did not know you were committing forgery. Take, for instance, when you signed a document you believed was legitimate. Your lawyer could argue that you lacked the required intent. Similarly, if you show that you were unaware that the document you signed was false or fraudulent, you could challenge forged document charges based on a lack of intent.

In addition to a lack of knowledge or awareness, a lack of intent can also be established by demonstrating a lack of specific intent to defraud or deceive.

For example, a person could have signed a document believing it to be a legally binding agreement. However, he/she later discovered that the other party acted in bad faith. The defendant could use this defense by arguing that he/she did not intend to commit fraud.

     b) Mistake or Accident

Mistakes or accidents can also be a legal defense to challenge forgery charges. If you made a mistake or acted accidentally when signing a document, your attorney will assert a lack of intent to commit forgery.

For example, you could have signed a document without realizing it was not the intended document. In this case, your actions were an accident and not intentional. Similarly, you can also mistakenly sign a document if you are under the influence of drugs or alcohol. This impairment could compromise your comprehension of the nature of your actions at the time. Thus, your actions were a mistake and not an intentional act of forgery.

However, this defense is only successful if you show that your actions were accidental or a mistake, not the result of intentional deception or fraud.

     c) Lack of Evidence

Lack of evidence is another common legal defense you can assert. Prosecutors must present sufficient evidence to prove each element of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt.

If the evidence is insufficient or lacking, you can challenge the charges. You can assert the prosecution’s failure to present proof that you had the necessary intent to commit fraud. Alternatively, you could contend that the prosecution failed to prove the documents in question were forged.

A lack of evidence defense could also involve attacking the credibility of prosecution witnesses or pointing out inconsistencies in the evidence. For example, if the prosecution's evidence relies heavily on the testimony of a single witness, your attorney could argue that the witness is not credible or has a bias that could affect his/her testimony.

In some cases, a lack of evidence defense involves arguing that the state failed to collect or preserve the evidence properly. This could include arguing that the chain of custody was improperly established or that the evidence was contaminated or mishandled.

     d) Duress or Coercion

You could use duress or coercion as a defense if you were coerced or forced to sign to commit forgery. This defense requires you to show that you were forced to sign a document or commit forgery under threat of harm. Additionally, you must prove to the jury you reasonably feared for your life or that of your loved ones. The fear resulting from a failure to comply with the person's demands pressuring you to commit the forgery.

However, you cannot use this defense if you voluntarilyyourself in a situation where you risk suffering harm. An example would be associating with known criminals or engaging in illegal activities.

     e) Coerced Confession

If you can show that your confession was coerced or involuntary, a judge can suppress it and prevent prosecutors from using it as evidence.

A confession is deemed coerced if it is obtained through physical or psychological coercion. Officers compel suspects into admissions by using threats or physical force. A confession can also be involuntary if police officers fail to advise you properly of your rights. That is:

  • The right to remain silent and
  • The right to an attorney

Provide evidence supporting your claims, including witness testimony, video or audio recordings, or other evidence.

     f) Insufficient Identification

This defense argues that the prosecution has failed to prove that you were the person who committed the forgery. Insufficient identification is based on the principle that you can only be convicted if the state makes its case. Your defense attorney could argue that the prosecution's evidence is unreliable or insufficient.

For example, your attorney could assert that the handwriting analysis used to link you to the forged document was flawed or unreliable. Additionally, he/she could argue that the prosecution's evidence is circumstantial. Therefore, it does not definitively prove that you committed the crime.

The burden of proof is on the prosecution to establish your identity as the culprit. You could be acquitted of the charges if the prosecution cannot definitively prove your identity as a suspect. However, this defense only applies in cases where:

  • You were caught committing the forgery, or
  • There is other strong evidence linking you to the crime.

Each case is unique. The best defense will depend on the facts of your case. Work with an experienced criminal defense attorney to help you settle on an ideal defense.

Penalties Upon Conviction for Forgery

Forgery is a wobbler offense. Prosecutors can pursue felony or misdemeanor charges.

If convicted of misdemeanor charges, the following are the likely penalties:

  • Summary probation or a jail sentence of up to one year and/or
  • A fine of up to $1,000

If convicted of felony charges, the following are the likely penalties:

  • Formal probation or a jail sentence of up to three years and/or
  • A fine of up to $10,000

Note: Forgery becomes a misdemeanor if:

  • The forged document is a money order, check, or a similar instrument, and
  • Instruments worth $950 or less

Statute of Limitations for Forgery

The time limit for filing forgery charges in California varies depending on whether the offense is charged as a felony or a misdemeanor. If the state charges you with a felony, the prosecutor can file charges within four years after the discovery or commission of the crime, whichever is later. On the other hand, if the state pursues misdemeanor charges, the prosecution must file charges within one year after the alleged commission of the crime.

Federal Forgery Charges - 18 U.S.C. § 471

18 U.S.C. § 471 is the federal law that criminalizes the forgery or counterfeiting of any obligation or security of the United States. This law applies to any instrument or document intended to represent a liability or obligation of the U.S. government. Currency, stamps, bonds, and other securities are typical instruments in federal forgery cases.

Federal prosecutors must prove the following elements as accurate to obtain a conviction for forgery under 18 U.S.C. § 471:

  • You made or altered an obligation or security of the U.S. government
  • You intended to defraud or deceive and
  • You knew the obligation or security was false, forged, or altered

If convicted of federal forgery charges, the penalties can be severe. The severity of the crime, the value of the forged instrument, and your criminal history determine the exact sentences. In general, the penalties under 18 U.S.C. § 471 include the following:

  • Up to 20 years in federal prison
  • A maximum fine of $250,000 for individuals and $500,000 for organizations
  • Restitution to the victims of the fraud

Forgery becomes a federal offense when the case involves forging government obligations or securities. Under 18 U.S.C. § 471. Whether an alleged forgery falls under federal or state jurisdiction depends on the victims and investigating agencies.

Federal authorities will most likely investigate if the forged document involves a federal government contract or other related paperwork. The defrauded agency usually leads the investigation. However, the FBI could take over cases that involve multiple agencies or highly sophisticated networks.

Related Offenses

  • Check fraud – Penal Code 476

  • Credit card fraud – Penal Code 484f

  • Making or selling counterfeit products – Penal Code 350

     a) Check Fraud

Penal Code 476 defines check fraud as passing or writing a check intending to defraud another person or entity. You are guilty of a PC 476 violation when you:

  • Write, pass, or present a check with the intent to defraud
  • Present the check to someone else as a form of payment or in exchange for goods or services
  • Present a check that was not honored by the bank because of insufficient funds or other reasons

A violation of PC 476 will result in the penalties outlined under PC 470. Therefore, if convicted of misdemeanor charges, the following are the likely penalties:

  • Summary probation or a jail sentence of up to one year and/or
  • A fine of up to $1,000

If convicted of felony charges, the following are the likely penalties:

  • Formal probation or a jail sentence of up to three years and/or
  • A fine of up to $10,000

Additionally, you could be ordered to pay restitution to the victim of the check fraud.

     b) Credit Card Fraud

Penal Code 484f pertains to credit card fraud. It is a serious offense with significant penalties, including fines and imprisonment. Prosecutors must prove the following to obtain a conviction for credit card fraud:

  • You used or attempted to use someone else's credit card or credit card information
  • You knew the credit card or credit card information was fake, stolen, or altered
  • You intended to defraud or deceive the cardholder, credit card company, or merchant

If convicted of credit card fraud, you could face various penalties. The penalties include:

  • Up to one year in jail and/or a fine of up to $1,000 if convicted on misdemeanor charges
  • Up to three years in prison and/or a fine of up to $10,000 if convicted on felony charges

You could also face civil penalties, including restitution to the victim and loss of credit card privileges.

     c) Making or Selling Counterfeit Products

PC 350, also known as California's counterfeit trademark law, makes it illegal to manufacture, produce, sell, or possess with the intent to sell counterfeit goods. The statute applies to various products, including clothing, accessories, electronics, and pharmaceuticals.

To secure a conviction under PC 350, prosecutors must prove the following elements:

  • You knowingly manufactured, produced, sold, or possessed counterfeit goods
  • The counterfeit goods bear a trademark or service mark registered with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office
  • You intended to deceive or defraud customers by passing off the counterfeit goods as genuine.

The product quantity and value in the case determine the penalties you will receive upon conviction.

You will receive misdemeanor penalties if the value is less than $950 and the quantity is less than 1,000. On the other hand, if the goods exceed $950 or less than 1,000 units are involved in the case, the crime is a wobbler. You could face misdemeanor or felony penalties upon conviction.

If convicted of a misdemeanor, the potential penalties include the following:

  • Up to one year in county jail,

If convicted of a felony, the likely penalties include the following:

  • A maximum of three years in state prison

Find a Criminal Defense Attorney Near Me

Are you facing forgery charges?

Contact an attorney right away. The team at Chula Vista Criminal Attorney is ready to help. Our experience equips us with the understanding and expertise you need in your case. Call us today at 619-877-6894 for a free case evaluation.