Forgery (Penal Code 470 PC)

Introduction to Penal Code 470 PC – Forgery

California law prohibits forgery under Penal Code 470 PC.  In simple terms, Penal Code 470 PC defines forgery as knowingly doing any of the following acts with the intent to commit fraud:

  • Changing or falsifying a legal document
  • Signing another person’s name
  • Recreating an official seal or another person’s handwriting
  • Faking, changing, or presenting a false document as if it were genuine

As you can tell from the examples above, Penal Code 470 PC’s definition of forgery covers a broad range of conduct.  However, it is important to recognize that Penal Code 470 PC is limited to conduct that was committed with an intention to defraud another person.  If the prosecutor cannot prove your intent to defraud, then you cannot be convicted of a Penal Code 470 PC violation.

Types of Penal Code 470 PC Forgeries

Lets examine the various types of Penal Code 470 PC forgeries outlined above:

Signing Another Person’s Name:

To be convicted of a Penal Code 470 PC violation by signing another person’s name, you must have done all of the following:

  • Sign somebody else’s name (either a real or fake person) on a financial or legal document
  • The signature was done without the authority to sign the name
  • You signed knowing that you did not have authority to do so

Example: One afternoon, Galen stumbles upon an envelope with a check made out to his roommate, David.  Galen endorses the check with David’s name and then cashes the check, keeping the money and never telling David about it.  Here, Galen has committed an act of Penal Code 470 PC forgery.  Note: if David gave Galen permission to cash the check and keep the money, Galen would not be criminally liable under Penal Code 470 PC.Faking a seal or someone else’s handwriting

Under Penal Code 470 PC, you can commit this type of forgery with any type of document.  This includes documents not specifically outlined in Penal Code 470 PC.  The only requirement is that the document in some way executes a fraudulent course of action.  Hence, this type of Penal Code 470 PC forgery is typically seen with documents involving a legal, financial, or property right.

Example: Barney wants to apply for a security job but does not have a license to carry a firearm.  He photocopies a license document that contains a government seal.  He also changes the name on the license with his own.  He then includes this fake license in his application for the security position.  Here, Barney committed Penal Code 470 PC forgery by both faking a seal and altering the document.

iii. Changing, faking, or falsifying a financial or legal document

This type of Penal Code 470 PC forgery can only be committed on legal documents.  This includes, but is not limited to, a will, court record, or title deed.  You can commit this type of Penal Code 470 PC forgery even if you did not fake a signature, handwriting, or seal.  The focus is on the legal document as a whole.

Example Sheldon is upset that his parents’ new will bequeaths more of the family estate to his brother, Leonard.  When Sheldon’s parents die, Sheldon sneaks into their room and replaces the older, more favorable version of the will with the more recent one.  Here, even though Sheldon did not fake a signature, handwriting or seal, he committed Penal Code 470 PC forgery by changing a legal document with the intent to pass it off as the genuine version.

Counterfeiting, changing, uttering, or publishing documents

This type of Penal Code 470 PC forgery can be committed through two different methods: one, you are liable if you falsified, changed, or counterfeited a series of documents that mainly pertain to financial or property rights; or two, you publish or submit a certain type of document as if it were genuine when it has either been altered, counterfeited, or faked.  This kind of forgery applies to a list of 40 documents outlined in Penal Code 470 PC.  The list includes, but is not limited to, checks, stock certificates, contracts, and title deeds.

Example: Frank operates a scam where he targets older people having trouble paying their medical bills.  He finds Meryl, who is having trouble meeting the costs of her monthly prescriptions.  Frank offers his assistance to Meryl and has her sign a series of different documents, never explaining to Meryl what she is signing. Meryl inadvertently signs over the deed to her home over to Frank.  Even though Frank did not actually sign her signature, he committed the action that led to the deceptive signing.  Hence, under Penal Code 470 PC, the deed transfer is considered a fraudulent document and Frank is criminally liable.

Aiding and Abetting under Penal Code 470 PC Forgery

California prohibits helping another person commit a Penal Code 470 PC violation under its aiding and abetting laws.  This means that you can still be held criminally liable even if you did not actually present or forge a document yourself.  California recognizes that it often takes sophisticated skill and technological prowess to commit a Penal Code 470 PC type act.  Hence, Penal Code 470 PC violations are often committed in unison with teams of other people.  This law is designed to stem those kinds of connections and make it easier to punish people who might have a minor role in a forgery scheme.

You can be held criminally liable for this type of forgery if you meet all of the following requirements:

  1. You knew that another person intended to commit forgery.
  2. You intended to assist that person in committing that forgery.
  3. You assisted, encouraged, or prompted that person’s forgery.

Examining the Legal Definition of Penal Code 470 PC Forgery

In order to prove you guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, the prosecutor must prove all of the elements of Penal Code 470 PC.  These elements are the facts of the crime that must be proven before you can be held criminally liable for a Penal Code 470 PC violation.  There are two elements to Penal Code 470 PC:  first, you committed one of the acts discussed above; second, you did so with the intent to commit fraud.  Note: Penal Code 470 PC does not require that the victim was actually defrauded.

Example: Clark visits the bank with the aim of cashing a fake check.  The bank teller, Lois, is suspicious of the check and has her manager review the check.  Discovering the check is fraudulent, the bank puts a hold on the check.  In this case, no money was stolen or changed hands.  However, Clark is still criminally liable under Penal Code 470 PC even though he was not successful in his attempt to cash the check.

  • Penal Code 470 PC’s Intent Requirement

You cannot be convicted of Penal Code 470 PC unless you intended to defraud someone.  This intent requirement protects people who accidentally defrauded someone. But it also means that you don’t actually have to be successful in the criminal attempt to be punished for a Penal Code 470 PC violation.  It only matters that you intended to deprive another person of money, property, or legal right,  and engaged in some conduct in furtherance of that intent.

Example: Jeremy received a check in the mail from “Homeowners Giveaway and Prizes” for $1000.  However, upon trying to cash the check, Jeremy is informed the check is fraudulent and is arrested.  In this case, Jeremy could argue that he had no knowledge the check was fake.  Furthermore, he could argue that he did not cash the check with any intention of defrauding anyone.  He really thought he had won a prize.  By presenting evidence of a lack of knowledge of the nature of the check and any fraudulent intent in attempting to cash the check, Jeremy can avoid criminal liability under Penal Code 470 PC.

Potential Penalties Carried By a Penal Code 470 PC Conviction

The penalties for Penal Code 470 PC can be severe.  For most circumstances, Penal Code 470 PC is considered a wobbler.  This means that the prosecutor has the discretion to charge you with either a misdemeanor or a felony.  This decision is usually made on the basis of your criminal history and the specific circumstances of your criminal act.

However, due to Proposition 47 passed in 2014, Penal Code 470 PC can only charged as a misdemeanor if all of the following are true: 

  • You forged a check, bank bill, traveler’s check, cashier’s check, bond, or bank bill/note.
  • The forged document does not represent more than $950 in damages to the victim.
  • You did not commit Penal Code 530.5 PC identity theft.
  • You do not have a past criminal record for any serious violent felonies or sex crimes.

If convicted of a Penal Code 470 PC misdemeanor, you may be punished with up to one year in county jail, a fine of up to $1,000, informal probation, and/or restitution for the victims.

If convicted of a Penal Code 470 PC felony, you may be punished with up to 3 years in jail, a fine of up to $10,000, formal probation, and/or restitution to the victims.

Diversion Programs for Penal Code 470 PC

Diversion programs allow you to bypass criminal penalties if you meet certain requirements. However, they are only available on county-by-county basis.  For example, Los Angeles County maintains a Bad Check Diversion Program.  Under this program, you can avoid criminal penalties for using a forged check if all of the following requirements are met:

  • Pay full restitution to the victim. In other words, pay the victim back for money they lost or damages suffered.
  • Attend an Intervention Class that typically lasts a whole day.

Ask an experienced criminal defense attorney what diversion programs might be available in your case.

What legal defenses are available if you are charged with Penal Code 470 PC?

There are a variety of legal defenses available to fight a Penal Code 470 PC accusation.  An experienced and diligent attorney can review the specific circumstances of your case to develop a legal strategy that can accomplish the best possible outcome.  Some of the legal defenses to Penal Code 470 PC include:

You had no Intention of committing fraud.

Remember that Penal Code 470 PC only punishes people who had the intent to defraud someone.  Employees, following the orders of their employer, may change a legal document or sign someone’s name thinking they had the authority or legal ability to do so because they were told so.  However, they were just pawns in a fraud scheme.  It may even be that the employee signed their boss’s name thinking that is what they would have wanted.  Regardless of the reason, a zealous criminal defense attorney can develop an evidentiary record that points to the fact that you had no intention of committing any type of Penal Code 470 PC fraud.

The document was not fraudulent

There is no Penal Code 470 PC violation if the forged document does not deprive another person of a legal right.  Usually, this right involves money or property.  You cannot be guilty of Penal code 470 PC if the document does not carry any legal value.  Hence, you cannot be punished under Penal Code 470 PC if you created a fake reference letter or photo-shopped a picture of a friend as a practical joke.

You are falsely accused of a Penal Code 470 PC violation.

It is not uncommon to see false accusations of Penal code 470 PC forgery in a business or legal setting.  When mistakes occur, people in these settings often blame someone else.  For this reason, its important to utilize an experienced criminal defense attorney who can uncover the truth of what happened and present it in a way to exonerates you of any Penal Code 470 PC charges.

It is not your handwriting.

Penal Code 470 PC often requires the use of handwriting experts.  This is because the issue of who wrote what surrounds most forgery cases.  A handwriting expert can help establish that you did not fraudulently sign a document or alter a document.  Prosecutors also utilize handwriting experts to build their case, which is why it is important to counter with an expert of your own.  While the testimony of handwriting experts can be strong evidence one way or another, it is important to remember that the opinion of an expert is not the final word.  The jury does not always agree with the opinion of a handwriting expert.  And California’s evidentiary rules allow and disallow expert opinions in a variety of different situations.  An experienced attorney can sort through the evidence rules to make sure nothing gets admitted that is inadmissible.

One rule of evidence that is commonly brought up involves handwriting samples made after the charges of Penal Code 470 PC forgery have been filed.  These handwriting samples are typically not admissible in court or usable as a basis of an expert opinion.  The purpose of this rule is to prevent someone from offering samples that do no represent their actual handwriting after they are alerted to the criminal charges or hearings.

  1. Related Criminal Offenses to Penal Code 470 PC Forgery
  2. Credit/Debit Card Fraud (Penal Code 484f)

Under this law, California prohibits altering or counterfeiting credit cards.  The law also prohibits forging a signature or signing under a fictional name.  Additionally, and similarly to Penal Code 470 PC, this law only punishes the above acts if conducted with the intention to defraud.

Similar to Penal Code 470 PC, this law is a wobbler.  If convicted of a misdemeanor, you may receive up to 1 year in county jail.  If convicted of a felony, you may receive up to 3 years in jail.

Check Fraud (Penal Code 476 PC)

Under this law, California prohibits making, using, and even possessing a bad check.  It is even a crime to attempt to commit such acts.  Similarly to Penal Code 470 PC, you cannot be convicted of Penal Code 476 PC unless you had knowledge that the check was bad and you had an intention to defraud someone by pretending it was genuine.

People charged with check fraud are often charged with forgery because the process of committing check fraud also meets the elements of Penal Code 470 PC.  Both criminal codes carry similar penalties.

Bad Checks (Penal Code 476a PC)

Under this law, California prohibits writing or using a check knowing that it will not be cleared by the bank.  Similar to Penal Code 470 PC, this law requires the intent to defraud.  Because the act of passing a bad check often meets the requirements of forgery, this law is often charged with Penal Code 470 PC.

Counterfeiting or Selling Marks (“Knock Off’s”) (Penal Code 350 PC)

Under this law, California prohibits making or selling counterfeit marks.   In other words, you will be subject to criminal liability if you possess, sell, or manufacture “knock off” goods.  This crime is classified as a wobbler. This means you could be charged with either a misdemeanor or felony depending how many knock off goods were involved and the overall value of the goods.  Also, if the goods were sold alongside a certificate of authenticity, then you will be charged with Penal Code 470 PC forgery as well.

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