Check fraud is a crime that occurs when you sign or endorse a check using another person's name without their consent. Due to the availability of technology and software required to commit this crime, check fraud has become more widespread and problematic. You can face an arrest and charges for check fraud under California Penal Code 476 when you possess, use, or present an altered check.
Check fraud is a severe offense, and a conviction will attract severe legal consequences, including jail time and hefty fines. If you or your loved one faces charges for check fraud in California, you will need the guidance of a competent attorney. At Riverside Criminal Defense Attorney Law Firm, we will offer you the legal advice and representation you require to fight the charges.
Overview of California Penal Code 476 Laws
Under California law, check fraud is defined as making possession use or an attempt to use a false check for payment. Under CPC 476, check fraud is one of the most commonly prosecuted fraud crimes and is considered a crime of forgery. Many cases of check fraud involve forged signatures. Therefore, if the prosecutor can prove that you violated PC 476, you are more likely to be convicted of the crime. Before you face a conviction for check fraud in California, the prosecution must prove the following elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt:
- You made, possessed, used, or attempted to use a false check to pay property or money. The most frequent forms of check fraud involve signing a check under another person's name without their consent. Also, fake checks could result from computer generation or checks written for non-existent banks. You are guilty of altering a check if you erase, modify or add information to the document making it appear different from its original form.
- You knew that the document was fake. When establishing your guilt under PC 476, the prosecutor must prove that you knew of the false nature of the check you passed or attempted to pass. You cannot be convicted for check fraud if you do not understand that the check was altered.
- When you possessed or used the check, you intended to pass it as genuine. To prove this element, the prosecution must prove the possibility of a corporation, business, or government agency being deceived using the check. You can make false representations through words or conduct. If the check you presented was fake and could not have passed as genuine, you cannot face a conviction under this statute.
- You acted with an intent to commit fraud. An intention to defraud exists when you intend to deceive and cause another person a financial loss. An actual financial gain is not necessary to prove check fraud; you can still face a conviction for the crime even when your attempt to commit fraud was unsuccessful.
Penalties for Check Fraud
Under California Law, check fraud is a wobbler. The prosecution can charge you with a felony or a misdemeanor, depending on the circumstance of your case and your criminal history. As a misdemeanor, check fraud attracts a one-year jail sentence and a $1,000 fine.
If the value of the false check exceeds $950 or you committed identity theft, you could be charged with a felony. Also, you could face felony charges if you are a repeat offender or are a registered sex offender. The potential penalties of a felony conviction include:
- A jail sentence of up to three years
- Fines not exceeding $10,000
As an alternative to a jail sentence, you could be sentenced to probation. A probation sentence allows you to spend part of your entire sentence out of jail. After a conviction for check fraud, you could face misdemeanor or felony probation, depending on the nature of your charges. When you are sentenced to probation, the judge imposes conditions that you must comply with while on probation. Probation conditions vary from case to case.
Some of the conditions of probation may include:
- The requirement to pay the fines and restitution imposed during sentencing for the crime
- Regular check-ins with your probation officer
- Restriction from leaving the county
- Restriction on possession and purchase of firearms
- Drug and alcohol prohibition
- Prohibition on committing other crimes while on probation
Under United States Immigration laws, check fraud may be considered an aggravated felony. If you are an immigrant, a conviction for check fraud could negatively affect your immigration status. Some of the immigration consequences that accompany a check fraud conviction include deportation and being rendered inadmissible.
When you commit a crime of check fraud, you could face Civil Code 1719 charges. The penalties for check fraud in the civil court include paying the victim up to three times the check value. However, you can avoid these penalties by agreeing to pay full restitution and a service fee of up to $25 for a bad check or $35 for the fraudulent checks you presented.
Defenses against Check Fraud in California
If you are arrested for violating PC 476, you should take the charges seriously. The consequences that accompany a conviction for the crime are severe, and even the slightest act could leave you with a criminal record that can make your life impossible. Fortunately, not all arrests for this crime will result in a conviction. Sometimes a genuine mistake could be taken as an intent to commit fraud, causing you to be falsely accused of the crime.
With guidance from a competent criminal defense attorney, you can build a strong defense around the following strategies to fight the charges:
Lack of Knowledge
One of the elements that a prosecutor must prove when establishing your guilt under CPC 476 is your knowledge that the document was altered or false. Your attorney will examine the facts surrounding the crime, and if you did not know that the document was false, they could present this defense to your case. If you can successfully establish your lack of knowledge, the prosecution cannot find you guilty of the crime, and the charges could be dismissed.
Lack of a Fraudulent Intent
Check fraud is a crime based on forgery. This is because most of these checks will have altered information or are signed under another person's name. You cannot accomplish an act of forgery unless you have an intention to commit fraud. When you face charges for check fraud, the prosecutor has the burden to prove that you acted with fraudulent intent. A competent criminal defense attorney can gather the necessary information to the lack of an intent to commit fraud.
The alleged Fraudulent Check is Genuine
The fact that a check appears to be altered or some content erased does not necessarily mean that the check is fake or was altered to commit fraud. As long as the check owner authorized the changes on the document, you cannot be convicted for check fraud. When establishing your guilt under this statute, the prosecutor must prove that you made changes without the owner's permission. This defense strategy is often helpful in cases involving employers and employees.
Sometimes, you could pass a check to another person. In this case, you may not know whether the check is fake or genuine. Therefore, you will not have the required fraudulent intent required to prove guilt for this crime. The person who altered or falsified the check and gave it to you should be the one to take responsibility for the crime. In instances where people act out of revenge or anger, false accusations for check fraud or other forms of fraud are common. If the prosecutor charges you for the crime based solely on circumstantial evidence, introducing a witness or solid evidence could aid in the dismissal or reduction of the charges.
The check could not have been Passed as Authentic
The prosecutor must prove that you attempted to present a fake check as genuine. If you can prove that the check you showed was false and could not pass as genuine, you cannot be found guilty of violating PC 476.
Violation of Miranda Rights
When an officer arrests you for check fraud, you could make incriminating statements that the prosecutor might use against you during the trial. Sometimes, the officer does not inform you of your Miranda rights during and after the arrest. Even when you are suspected of committing a crime, you have a right to remain silent and a right to legal representation. If you started learning of your Miranda rights, they could not be used against you. Your attorney will fight to have the statements removed from the case.
In addition to the above defenses, your attorney can attempt to mitigate with the prosecutor to reach an agreement and avoid fraud charges. To enhance the chances of successful mitigation, your attorney will need to provide the prosecution with all the necessary evidence to prove your innocence. If your criminal record is clean, you have a better chance of avoiding criminal charges.
When building your defense against check fraud charges, it is crucial to understand that any attempt to compensate the victim will not erase your guilt. However, you can use that fact to seek a reduced sentence.
Frequently Asked Questions on Check Fraud in California
Check Fraud is a serious offense, and a conviction may have life-changing consequences. Facing an arrest and criminal charges can be traumatizing, especially when you do not understand what you did wrong. Seeking competent legal guidance is one of the steps you should take if you are battling check fraud charges. Some of the frequently asked questions on CPC 476 include:
Can I still be charged with check fraud if I attempted to return the money?
When you are charged with presenting or making a fake check, you will face charges for check fraud. Even when you attempt to return the money you took through a fraudulent check, you will still be found guilty of violating CPC 476. Although you cannot use restitution as a defense to these charges, it can act as a mitigating factor to help you in receiving a lighter sentence.
Can I face a conviction for check fraud if I did not use the fake check to commit fraud?
You can be arrested and charged with check fraud even when the check did not result in financial loss. PC 476 constitutes possession making or signing a fraudulent check. Therefore, if you're found in possession of the altered check, proof that you used it to defraud another person is not required to secure a conviction.
Can check fraud be reduced to a lesser offense?
Yes. Depending on the circumstances of your case, check fraud charges can be reduced to attempted check fraud which is a lesser offense under California law. Under CPC 664, any failed attempt to commit a crime is punishable by half the sentence of the crime you attempted to commit. If you are hoping to have your charges reduced, you will require competent legal guidance.
If I attempted to use a fake check and could not be presented as genuine, can I be found guilty of check fraud?
No. One of the elements of PC 476 requires that you present a fake check as genuine. If you used a falsified check that could not present as authentic, you could not be convicted for this crime. For example, an attempt to cash a check written on a napkin cannot attract fraud charges.
Can I Expunge a Check Fraud Conviction?
In California, prosecutors can charge check fraud as a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on the circumstances of your case. Either way, a defendant convicted of this crime is entitled to expungement under CPC 1203.4. Even after completing your jail sentence and paying your fines, a conviction for check fraud could have a long-lasting effect on your life. In addition to the legal penalties for this crime, the state could deny you the right to renew a professional license and make it difficult to obtain and retain employment. Expunging the convictions releases you from the disabilities of the conviction.
If you wish to expunge your check fraud conviction, you must meet the eligibility criteria, which includes:
- You must have completed your probation. Successful completion of probation means that you have paid your fines and adhered to all the probation conditions imposed during sentencing
- You must not be serving a sentence for another crime
- You must not have served a prison sentence
Not everyone will qualify to expunge their convictions. If you meet the above criteria, the court allows you to withdraw your guilty plea, and all the penalties and disabilities that accompany the conviction are set off. Although an expunged conviction will still appear in your background checks, employers cannot use it against you. Therefore, you will not need to worry about missing out on a job opportunity or being denied a license.
Offenses Related to Check Fraud
Check fraud is one of the most common fraud crimes prosecuted under California law. Many other crimes are similar to PC 476 and could be charged alongside or in the place of check fraud. Some of the offenses related to check fraud include:
Writing Bad Checks
Under CPC 476(a), it is a crime to write a check with the knowledge of insufficient funds in the account to cover the payment. Often, charges for writing bad checks arise when you write a check to someone, and it bounces for insufficient funds in the account. Although check fraud deals with forgery, the prosecution may decide to charge you with both offenses.
When you face charges for violation of PC 476(a), the prosecution must establish these elements:
- You made, drew, used, or attempted to use a check for payment.
- When you made or issued the check, you knew that the funds in the account were not sufficient to cover the payment.
- You acted with an intent to defraud. Fraudulent intent is an intention to trick or deceive another person into facilitating your financial gain.
Prosecutors charge writing bad checks as a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on its value. If the fraudulent check is worth $950 or less, you will face a misdemeanor conviction which attracts a one-year jail sentence. For checks worth $950 or more, you will face a felony conviction. A felony conviction for this offense is punishable by a jail sentence of up to three years and fines not exceeding $10,000.
A crime of forgery occurs when you sign another person's name or falsify a legal document. Forgery is an essential part of check fraud since it involves the falsification or alteration of a check. Some of the acts that qualify as forgery under California Penal Code 470 include:
- Changing or falsifying a document
- Forging a seal or someone else's handwriting on a legal document
- Signing a person's name on a document without their consent
- Altering the information on a document
For this statute, you intend to commit fraud if you deceive another person into depriving them of financial gain or causing property loss. In California, forgery is a wobbler. A conviction for felony forgery attracts a jail sentence of up to three years, formal probation, and a fine not exceeding $10,000.
On the other hand, a misdemeanor conviction is punishable by a one-year jail sentence and misdemeanor probation. In addition, a forgery conviction could result in negative immigration consequences like deportation.
The crime of grand theft involves taking another person's money or property worth $950 or more. If the check you possessed, used, or attempted to use is the commission of check fraud worth $950 or more, you could be charged with check fraud and grand theft. Grand theft is a wobbler. When charged as a felony, a conviction for grand theft attracts a jail sentence ranging from sixteen months to three years and felony probation. As a misdemeanor, the crime is punishable by a jail sentence of up to one year and a fine not exceeding $1,000.
In addition to the above penalties, grand theft involving high-value property could result in an additional jail sentence. If you are convicted on grand theft and check fraud charges, you are likely to face a lengthy jail sentence, among other penalties. Therefore, seeking legal guidance is essential to fight the charges.
You commit a crime of petty theft when you take property belonging to another person without their consent. The difference between petty theft and grand theft is the value of the property you took. Petty theft involves property valued at $950 or less. If you use, pass or attempt to use a fake check to obtain property valued at $950 or more, the prosecutor could charge you with both check fraud and petty theft.
Petty theft is a misdemeanor. A conviction for the offense attracts a jail sentence of up to six months and a $1,000 fine. Since petty theft is a lesser offense compared to other theft crimes, the court could sentence you to summary probation instead of jail time,
Find a Riverside Criminal Defense Attorney Near Me
Check fraud is one of the most common forms of fraud in the United States. The occurrence of this crime has increased as a result of improved technology required to alter the checks. Some of the acts that could cause you to be arrested and charged with check fraud include possession, making, or passing a fake check. For this crime, a fake check is signed by the wrong person, or the information is altered.
Check fraud is prosecuted under CPC 476, and the consequences that accompany a conviction for this offense are severe. If you have been charged with check fraud or another fraud crime, it would be wise to contact a criminal defense attorney for legal guidance and representation. If you or your loved one faces criminal charges for check fraud in Riverside, CA, we invite you to contact us at Riverside Criminal Defense Attorney Law Firm. Our group of competent attorneys will guide you through the case and help you build a solid defense to fight the charges. Call us today at 951-946-6366 to discuss the details of your case.