Forgery Laws and Penalties

The penalty for forging, counterfeiting, or modifying documents and instruments varies widely depending on the type of document tampered with, with crucial government documents topping the list.

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Making, changing, using, or possessing fraudulent writing in order to commit fraud is known as a forgery. It can take numerous forms, ranging from signing a cheque in someone else’s name to faking one’s own academic transcript. Counterfeiting is the term used when the topic of forgery is money. Forgery (also known as “uttering a false instrument”) is a serious crime that is penalized by the federal government and all fifty states.

Our culture places a high value on the ability to create and exchange valid and reliable papers. Falsified papers can have substantial and far-reaching ramifications for enterprises, individuals, and political organizations. This is why forgery is so severely penalized.

Traditionally, forgery was defined as the act of creating or changing a fake writing. Possessing, using, or offering false writing with the intent to defraud was a separate offense known as “uttering a forged instrument.” For example, if someone used a phony identification card to acquire a line of credit, he was guilty of uttering a forged instrument even though he did not make the fraudulent ID card. Today, most states treat both offenses as the single crime of forgery.

What Is Forgery?

The prosecution must prove several elements or factors, including the following, to secure a forgery conviction.

  1. Making, Altering, Using, or Possessing

    Forgery begins with the creation, alteration, use, or possession of fraudulent writing. Many people associate forgery with creating fraudulent writings, such as faking letters or certifications. However, if the adjustment is “substantial” or impacts a legal right, it can be considered forgery.

    Forging another person’s signature on a document, for example, is a substantial modification since it misrepresents the person who signed the document, which has major legal ramifications. When major portions of papers are deleted, added, or changed, these modifications may be considered “substantial” alterations if they influence the legal rights or duties indicated in the papers. Using or holding fake writings, as described above, also constitutes forging, but in some jurisdictions, this is referred to as “uttering a forged instrument.”

  2. False Writing

    Forgery does not apply to every piece of writing. The writing in question must have legal significance and be fraudulent to serve as the foundation for forging charges, as detailed below.

    Legal significance appears to be present. The text in question must appear to have legal importance in order to be considered forgery. This comprises government-issued documents like driver’s licenses and passports, as well as transactional documents like deeds, conveyances, and receipts, as well as financial instruments like currencies, checks, or stock certificates, and other documents like wills, patents, medical prescriptions, and works of art.

    A document does not have to be legal or government-issued to have legal significance; it merely has to effect legal rights and duties. As a result, papers such as letters of recommendation or physician notes may be forgeries. Signing another person’s name to a letter to a friend, on the other hand, is unlikely to be considered forgery because it has no legal significance in most cases.

    To be considered false, the writing must be fabricated or materially altered to make it appear to be or represent something it is not. In most cases, simply inserting false statements into writing will not suffice to meet this requirement if the misrepresentations do not alter the writing’s fundamental meaning. For example, you have not committed forgery if you insert a false statement into a letter you wrote. It is, however, forgery if you compose a legal letter and then present it as if it were written by someone else.

  3. With the Intent to Defraud

    The defendant must have planned to cheat someone or some entity, such as a government agency, in order to be guilty of forgery (though the fraud need not have been completed). This aspect protects persons from facing criminal charges if they possess or sign counterfeit documents without realizing they are fake. For example, if you buy a used car and later discover that the vendor faked the title to the automobile, you will not face forgery charges for possessing the fraudulent title because you had no intent to defraud.

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Federal Anti-Forgery Laws

Although most forgeries are prosecuted at the state level, some types of forgery are also felonies under federal law. For example, under federal law, identity theft—a type of forgery in which a person falsifies a document in order to assume the identity of another—is a felony punishable by a fine and a lengthy prison sentence. Other sorts of forgery are prohibited by federal law, including counterfeiting money, fabricating federal documents such as immigration paperwork or military discharge certificates, and forgery with the intent to defraud the government. If a falsified document is carried or shipped beyond state lines, or if the forgery occurs in numerous states, it automatically becomes a federal offense.

Common Penalties for Forgery Offenses

In all fifty states, forgery is a felony punishable by a variety of punishments including jail or prison term, large fines, probation, and restitution (compensating the victim for money or goods stolen as a result of the forgery). Certain types of forgeries are considered minor offenses in some states and are penalized less harshly than felony offenses (with a maximum incarceration period of one year in most states).

Forgery offenses are punishable under a variety of state laws, allowing judges to choose the most appropriate punishment for each case. For instance, in Oregon, forgery penalties range from probation and community service (for a misdemeanor forgery offense) to five years in prison and a $125,000 fine (for a felony forgery offense). The penalties for check forgery in Minnesota vary depending on the amount of money involved. Forging checks worth less than $250 are punishable by up to one year in prison and a $3,000 fine, whereas forging checks worth more than $250 are penalized by up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

When calculating the appropriate punishment, several states consider the kinds of papers in question. When the counterfeit instrument is currency, securities, stocks, or bonds, for example, a forgery is classified as “first-degree forgery” in New York. Deeds, government-issued documents, public records, and medical prescriptions are all examples of second-degree forgery. Other forms of documents are included under third-degree forgery. Forgery in the first and second degrees is a felony, while forgery in the third degree is a misdemeanor.

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