What Is Forgery, Its Defenses and the Possible Punishment?

There are four types of conduct that can be prosecuted as forgery under Penal Code § 470.  Each is considered a serious crime and a crime of moral turpitude that can have immigration consequences.  Forgery can be punished, as set forth at Penal Code § 473 as a misdemeanor or a felony.  When punished as a misdemeanor, the maximum is one year in county jail and as a felony, the maximum is three years before any enhancements apply.
Brief Synopsis:  Forgery is a “wobbler,” meaning it can be prosecuted as a felony or a misdemeanor depending upon the case facts and defendant’s criminal history.  It is also a crime of moral turpitude with immigration consequences.  As a felony, if convicted of forgery, one can face up to three years in prison before sentencing enhancements apply.
As mentioned above, there are four types of forgery.  First, one can be prosecuted for signing someone else's name without that person’s authorization.  The most common context of this is trying to cash someone else's check by signing the account holder’s signature on the check.  This could be also prosecuted as burglary.  Alternatively, an example of this could be entering a store, intending to buy items on another person’s credit card and having to sign the receipt (this would also be theft).

Second, forgery takes place when one recreates a seal or the handwriting of another (not necessarily a signature) without prior approval.  This form of forgery is common in cases involving driver’s licenses when a minor changes the date of birth so as to appear over age 21.

Third, forgery occurs when one falsifies legal documents such as a will, quit claim deed or court records.  In elder abuse and loan application contexts, this is common.

Last, forgery can be prosecuted when one alters, recreates, creates, or publishes false documentation relating to money, stocks, a sale, transfer or exchange of goods or property, including in a property deed, will, trust, or notarized documents.  Our office has seen this take place in embezzlement cases and criminal fraud cases involving Ponzi schemes.

The defenses to forgery begin with whether the alleged victim consented to your conduct. If this applies, the prosecutor will certainly want to verify this because police usually rule this out prior to recommending that a case be filed.  It is one of the first questions the police ask when realizing a forgery is alleged.

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The second defense concerns the issue of whether you committed the act knowingly.  This means you may have been mistaken in what you did with no intent to defraud.  This is a tough defense to prove. 

The third common defense is simply that the case is one of misleading evidence, i.e. you did not sign the check or alter the document as alleged.  You, in other words, are innocent. Someone else made the alteration or signed the check.

When the victim is cooperative and forgiving, it is wise to consider a Motion for Civil Compromise under Penal Code §§ 1368 and 1369 if defendant has benefited monetarily and there is a victim.  If the defendant repays the victim and the victim will agree that all damage has been paid in full by defendant and the victim is not desirous of criminal prosecution, the court may dismiss the case as a civil compromise has been reached.

For more information about forgery and white collar crimes in general, click on the following articles:
  1. Dismissal of Forgery Charges Reversed Although Defendants Impersonated No One During Scheme
  2. Court Reverses Felony False Impersonation Conviction Involving Use of Birth Certificate
  3. What Is a Motion for Civil Compromise?
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