Check fraud is one of the most prominent forms of fraud in the United States. This is partly due to the increased sophistication and availability of technology such as scanners and certain types of computer software. Being that check fraud has become more prominent in recent years, it has also been prosecuted more frequently.
In California, check fraud falls under Penal Code 476 PC. California Penal Code 476 PC charges are quite serious and the penalties, if convicted, are severe. If you have been charged with check fraud or a related offense in California, you need to contact a criminal defense attorney who can represent you.
What is Check Fraud?
California’s check fraud law, Penal Code 476 PC, is part of the broader category of California fraud offenses and is considered a crime of forgery. In California, check fraud is defined as the making, possession, passing on, or use of a false or altered check to be used as payment, or the attempt to do any of the above. Additionally, in order to be convicted of check fraud, the prosecutor must prove that you committed the fraudulent activity knowingly and intentionally.
The most frequent form of check fraud in California is the signing or endorsement of a check with another person’s name without his or her permission, but check fraud can take many other forms including:
- False fabrication of checks
- Altering the routing numbers on a check
- Changing the dollar amount on a check
Fictitious or “Fake” Checks
In California, it is illegal to make, possess, pass on, or use fake checks. This could include making computer generated checks, using a check from a non-existent bank, or using a check endorsed by a non-existent person.
A check from a closed account does not necessarily constitute a fake check. The following examples provide a bit more clarification:
Example 1: Ellen fabricates computer-generated checks using publishing software. When she attempts to cash one of the checks at the grocery store, the account comes up “closed” and the store manager notifies the authorities. Ellen is charged with violating Penal Code 476.
Example 2: Ellen attempts to pay for her groceries at the store with a check from an account of hers that was recently closed. The account comes up “closed” and the store manager notifies the authorities. Although Ellen may be subject to penalties covered by other statutes, she is not charged with violating Penal Code 476 because, although the account has been closed, the bank they were drawn from is real, Ellen had had an account at the bank, and Ellen is an existing person.
You are guilty of altering a check when you erase, change, or add to part of a check in such a way that it appears different from its original form and is changed in its legal effect. This can include include:
- Altering the dollar amount. For example, changing a $50 check to a $500 check by adding an extra “0” to the dollar amount.
- Altering the routing number or check number
- Altering the date on a check. For example, changing the date on a post-dated check so that it reads as an earlier date.
“Fraudulent intent” requires that you intended to deceive another person out of money or property and must be proven by the prosecutor in order for you to be convicted of check fraud. However, in order to be convicted of violating Penal Code 476 PC no one actually has to suffer any loss or be defrauded.
You only need to have intended to unlawfully gain from the fraudulent activity in order to be guilty of check fraud. In addition to representing a fraudulent check as though it is real and genuine, you must also have knowledge that the check is fraudulent in order to be convicted of check fraud. If, for example, someone pays you with a fake check and you attempt to cash it, believing that it is real, it is the person who knowingly gave you the fake check and not you who is guilty of fraud as you had no knowledge and no fraudulent intent.
Below are descriptions of some offenses that, while similar or related to Penal Code 476 PC, fall under different penal codes and may carry different penalties.
Forgery – Penal Code 470 PC
California’s forgery law prohibits having the intent to defraud when:
- Signing the name of another person without his or her consent or signing a name of a person who does not exist on an applicable document
- Altering a will, deed, or court judgment
- Forging the handwriting or seal of another person
While signing another person’s name on a check is a type of forgery and you could be charged under Penal Code 470 PC or Penal Code 476 PC, forgery applies to a much broader category of documents than check fraud does. Forgery carries the same penalties as check fraud, outlined in more detail below.
Bad Checks – Penal Code 476a PC
You are guilty of violating California’s bad checks law if you write or pass a check with the knowledge that there are insufficient funds in the account to cover the amount of the check. As with check fraud, you must have the intent to commit fraud to be guilty of violating Penal Code 476a PC.
Grand Theft – Penal Code 487 PC
California’s grand theft law prohibits stealing money or property exceeding a value of $950. This includes making or passing a fraudulent check exceeding $950, or using a fraudulent check exceeding $950 by cashing it or exchanging it for goods.
In California, grand theft is a “wobbler” offense which means that it can be prosecuted as either a misdemeanor or a felony.
Theft of money or goods with a value of less than $950 is considered petty theft in the state of California. You could be charged with petty theft in addition to check fraud if you obtain money or goods with a fake or altered check. Petty theft is a misdemeanor and the penalties if convicted include 6 months in jail and a fine of up to $1,000.
Penalties for Check Fraud in California
In California, check fraud is a “wobbler” offense, which means that it can be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony depending on the facts of the case and the defendant’s criminal history. However, if the value of a forged check exceeds $950 and the defendant is also convicted of violating Penal Code 530.5 PC identity theft, then the check fraud can only be prosecuted as a felony.
If charged as a misdemeanor, potential penalties include:
- Up to 1 year in county jail
- A fine of up to $1,000
If charges as a felony, potential penalties include
- Probation and up to 1 year in county jail, or
- 16 months, 2 years, or 3 years in county jail, and/or
- A fine of up to $10,000
Check fraud may be considered an aggravated felony under United States immigration laws. If you are not a U.S. citizen, a check fraud conviction could have serious effects on your immigration status and it is critical that you consult with a criminal defense or immigration attorney. If convicted, you may be subject to deportation, denial of naturalization, or exclusion of admission to the United States.
Depending on the details of your case, there are several defense strategies that your attorney may use to defend you against Penal Code 476 PC charges. A few of these strategies are detailed below.
No Fraudulent Intent
You cannot be convicted of fraud in California unless it can be proven that you intended to commit fraud. If, for example, you pass a fake check without realizing that is is fake, then you are not guilty of fraud. If you had no intention of deceiving another person in order to gain money, goods, or services, then your attorney may choose to demonstrate that you lacked fraudulent intent.
There are some circumstances where altering a check is not considered fraud. It is not illegal to make alterations to a check or sign another person’s name to a check if you had permission to do so from the person who had the authority to grant that permission. If you are able to prove that you had consent to sign a check or make alterations, you cannot be convicted of violating Penal Code 476 PC.
Lack of Knowledge
Similar to the “lack if intent” defense, lack of knowledge requires that you are aware of the fact that you are attempting to use or pass a check that is fraudulent. If, as in one of the examples we saw in a previous section, you are paid by another party with a counterfeit check and attempt to cash the check with no knowledge of its fraudulence, you are not the party who has committed fraud and should not be convicted of violating Penal Code 476 PC.
California Check Fraud Attorney
The penalties for check fraud in California are severe. If you are facing check fraud charges, you need to have a tough and knowledgeable criminal defense attorney on your side. As a California defense attorney with over 30 years of experience, I can build the best defense for you based on the details of your case. Don’t wait, call my office today to schedule a consultation!