Is false impersonation a crime?
False impersonation – pretending to be someone else – is a criminal offense under certain circumstances in California. This crime is codified in California Penal Code section 529.
In general, pretending to be someone else in itself does not constitute a crime. A criminal act has not occurred unless the person posing as another also performs some action that either harms the person being impersonated or provides a benefit for themselves.
In the simplest sense, false impersonation means pretending to be someone else. However, under California Penal Code 529, by itself, pretending to be someone else does not constitute a crime. A criminal act has not occurred unless the person posing as another also performs some action that either harms the person being impersonated or provides a benefit for themselves.
Elements of the crime of false impersonation
To obtain a conviction under 529 PC, the prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant:
Falsely impersonated another person in their private or public capacity; AND
In doing so, performed some additional act that created liability for that person OR a benefit for themselves.
Under this statute, falsely impersonating someone means representing oneself as someone else in order to deceive a third party. Acts that create liability for the impersonated person or a benefit for the defendant include actions that:
Serve as a surety or bail before an officer of the court in the name of the person the defendant is impersonating; OR
Verify, acknowledge, publish, or prove a written instrument in that person’s name.
For example, if Helen gives her sister’s name when she meets someone at a bar, she has not committed a violation under this statute. However, if while pretending to be her sister Eileen, Helen signs court documents in Eileen’s name — such as a bail bond or jail release paperwork – her conduct fulfills both the elements of 529 PC.
There are several offenses related to 529 PC that can be charged in addition to or instead of a charge of false impersonation. These include:
148.9 PC – Falsely identifying oneself to a police officer
532 PC – Theft by false pretenses
538(d) – Impersonating a police officer
Criminal penalties for false impersonation
529 PC is a wobbler offense, which means the prosecution has the option to charge a defendant with either a felony or misdemeanor. This determination hinges upon the facts of the case, the unique circumstances of the violation, and the defendant’s prior criminal history, if any.
If convicted of a misdemeanor, the defendant may be sentenced to up to one year in county jail and/or a fine of up to $10,000. For a felony conviction, the sentence will be 16 months to three years in county jail and/or a maximum fine of $10,000.
Legal defenses to a charge of false impersonation
The formulation of a legal strategy for this offense is highly fact dependent, and anyone charged with a violation of 529 PC should immediately seek counsel from a qualified criminal attorney. Possible defenses include:
No additional qualifying act was committed in conjunction with the false impersonation.
Liability to another or benefit to the defendant was not created.
False accusations or mistaken identity.