Forgery – California Penal Code 470
Forgery encompasses several types of criminal fraud. In addition to fraudulently signing another person’s name, under California 470 PC, forgery also includes:
- Counterfeiting or recreating the handwriting or the seal of another person without prior approval.
- Altering, corrupting, or falsifying certain legal documents.
- Knowingly making, altering, forging, counterfeiting, uttering, or publishing any document relating to money, stocks, sales or transfers, exchanges of goods or property, wills, powers of attorney, or other notarized documents.
In many cases, forgery involves more than one of the above activities.
Types of forgery
Signing another’s name
Forgery as a result of signing another’s name occurs when someone commits the following actions:
- Signs a name which is not their own on a financial or legal document.
- Signs that name without authorization to do so.
- Knows that they didn’t have authority to sign the name.
If any of these three elements is missing, the action does not constitute the crime of forgery. For example, sending a letter to the editor of the local newspaper and signing it with a neighbor’s name is not a crime under the provisions of 470 PC, although it may be an offense under other statutes.
Counterfeiting or forging a seal or handwriting
This type of forgery occurs when someone counterfeits or copies someone else’s seal or handwriting on a document which can potentially be used to commit a fraud. This is generally a document related to a financial, legal, or real estate matter. This type of forgery can be performed in many ways, including:
- Making a photocopy of a document and passing it off as an authentic original.
- Creating a document with the unauthorized use of, or a fake seal, such as a notary public’s stamp.
- Duplicating another person’s handwriting without prior authorization.
Altering, corrupting, or falsifying legal documents
This type of forgery occurs when someone modifies, damages or destroys, or creates a legal document with the intention of committing fraud. Examples of legal documents include wills and trusts, contracts, deeds that convey property, and other written documents that can be entered into evidence in a court of law.
For example, Tom was originally a 50% beneficiary of his aunt’s trust, but she later created a trust amendment document that among other changes, reduced his share to 25%. While his aunt was in hospice care, Tom went through her trust paperwork, discovered the amendment, and destroyed it with the goal of receiving the 50% share to which he was originally entitled. Even though Tom did not directly alter a legal document or create a false document, he could potentially be charged with forgery under 470 PC for his actions.
Falsely making, altering, uttering, or publishing certain documents
This type of forgery occurs when someone falsifies, alters, or counterfeits specific types of documents listed in the text of 470 PC and then attempts to “utter” or “publish” such a document – legal-speak for trying to pass off the fake document as a valid original. Most of the documents specified in 470 PC are related to financial matters and/or property rights.
Types of documents subject to forgery
There are more than 40 documents named in 470 PC. Some of the most common documents which are protected from forgery under this statute include:
- Checks, money orders, and travelers’ checks
- Promissory notes
- Real estate leases and mortgage loan documents
- Property deeds
- Stock certificates and bonds
- Lottery tickets
Elements of the crime of forgery
To obtain a successful conviction for a charge of violating 470 PC, the prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant:
- Committed one of the actions prohibited under the statute; AND
- Did so with a specific intent to defraud another.
Under California law, intent to defraud means to purposefully engage in the deception of a person or entity (such a corporation) in an attempt to deprive them of money, property, or some type of legal rights usually related to money and/or property. As such, altering a document that lacks legal significance does not generally constitute fraud under the law.
If these two elements can be proven, it is irrelevant whether the target the defendant intended to defraud was actually defrauded. The crime specifically deals with the actions and intentions of the defendant, not the results.
Forgery is commonly considered to be a “white-collar” crime, and is often associated with other crimes which are commonly charged in conjunction with a forgery charge, including:
- 484(f) PC – Credit and debit card fraud
- 476 PC – Check fraud
- 350 PC – Manufacture or sale of counterfeit marks
Criminal penalties for forgery
470 PC is a wobbler offense which is charged as a misdemeanor or a felony (with the exception noted below), depending on the facts of the case, totality of the circumstances, and any prior criminal history of the defendant.
Pursuant to Proposition 47, forgery is limited to a misdemeanor charge if:
- The forged document is a bank bill, bond, cashier’s check, check, traveler’s check, or note; and
- The value of the document forged does not exceed $950; and
- The defendant is not convicted of identity theft [530.5 PC] in conjunction with the offense.
If convicted of a misdemeanor, a defendant may be sentenced to any or all of the following penalties:
- Up to one year in county jail.
- A maximum fine of $1,000.
- Informal probation.
- Restitution to be paid to the victim(s).
If convicted of a felony, a defendant may be sentenced to any or all of the following penalties:
- 16 months to three years in county jail.
- A maximum fine of $10,000.
- Formal probation.
- Restitution to be paid to the victim(s).
Legal defenses to charges of forgery
There are several defenses commonly utilized for a charge of forgery, including lack of intent, false allegations, and mistaken identity. Selecting the appropriate defense strategy requires a thorough review of the facts of the case, and extensive knowledge of legal tactics and procedures. Anyone accused of this offense should seek advice from a qualified and experienced criminal defense attorney.
Do you have questions about an accusation of forgery pursuant to California Penal Code 470 or a related offense? Contact Long Beach criminal defense lawyer Don Hammond. Mr. Hammond represents clients in Long Beach and the greater Los Angeles area, including Lakewood, Signal Hill, Carson, Compton, Gardena, Inglewood, Wilmington, and surrounding communities.