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Can Passage of One Fraudulent Check Lead to Three Crimes?

Aaron Falls went to a Vons market in Lake Elsinore and tried to buy groceries with a $185.26 check.  When the Vons cashier asked for identification, Falls refused.  Falls then pulled out another check and tried to pay with it, but again, the cashier requested identification and Falls again refused.  The cashier handed Falls back the first check, but kept the second check.  Falls commented that his bank authorized him to print checks online, which the cashier suspected was untrue.
About This Article Briefly:  Passing one fraudulent check can lead to three charges and two convictions for violating two different Penal Code sections, as such conduct is actually two separate, distinguishable crimes (Penal Code § 475(c), possessing a fraudulent check, and Penal Code § 476, possessing a fraudulent check with intent to defraud).
The cashier then followed Falls to the parking lot and wrote down Falls’ license plate.  The cashier then called the bank on the second check.

In response, the bank called the husband and wife joint owners on the account, who said they did not know Falls and had not given Falls permission to use their checks.   Falls was then arrested shortly thereafter.

image descriptionLake Elsinore Sign

The District Attorney in Riverside Superior Court charged Falls with second degree burglary (Penal Code § 459), making, passing, uttering, publishing or possessing a fraudulent check with intent to defraud (Penal Code § 476), and possessing a completed check with the intent to utter and pass it in order to defraud (Penal Code § 475(c)).

Falls had four prior convictions for which he served prison terms.

The jury convicted Falls and the judge then sentenced Falls to four years in county jail.

Falls appealed his convictions, contending many errors at the trial court level.  This article will cover only Falls’ argument that he could not be convicted of both Penal Code section 475(c) (possessing a completed check with intent to defraud) and section 476 (possessing a fraudulent check with intent to defraud).

The trial judge had permitted convictions on both charges because it agreed with the prosecution that there was two different types of conduct.  First, under Penal Code § 475(c), Falls possessed the fraudulent check, which is itself a crime.  Second, Falls attempted to use the check to buy groceries, a violation of Penal Code § 476.

Falls argued that forgery consists of both the offenses listed in sections 475 and 476 and therefore, it was one crime and not two.  In support of his position, he cited People v. Ryan (2006) 138 Cal. App. 4th 360.

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In Ryan, defendant was convicted of violating Penal Code § 470(a) by signing another person’s name to a check and Penal Code § 470(d) by making or passing a forged check at a business.  Ryan claimed he could not be convicted of violating both subdivisions, as the two acts constituted the single act of forgery, not distinguishable and separate conduct.

The appellate court ruling on Ryan agreed, stating, “in construing… section 470, courts have consistently held that there was but one crime of forgery, and that the various acts proscribed by the statute were simply different means of committing that offense.”  

Under Penal Code § 954, however, multiple convictions can be based on a single criminal act, unless one offense is necessarily included in the other.  In the case of forgery, section 470 sets forth alternative ways that the same crime can be committed.

Thus, the appellate court, in looking at Falls’ convictions found that his convictions for violating separate statutes were proper, even if the statutes were “different statements of the same offense.”  Moreover, the court reasoned, if the Legislature had intended Penal Code Sections 475 and 476 to be part of the singular offense of forgery, 475 and 476 would not have been set forth in separate statutes.   

Consequently, the trial court’s opinion was affirmed.

The citation for the Fourth Appellate District Court of Appeals ruling discussed above is People v. Aaron Falls (4th App. Dist., 2014) 167 Cal.Rptr.3d 318.

For more information about criminal fraud in general, click on the following articles:
  1. What Is Passing Bad Checks (Penal Code § 476(a))?
  2. What Is Forgery?
  3. Dismissal of Forgery Charges Reversed Although Defendants Impersonated No One During Scheme
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