In case you face a check fraud charge in Santa Ana, California, don’t appear in front of a judge to prove your innocence without expert legal representation. The consequences of most kinds of fraud offenses, check fraud included, are harsh. Therefore, the stakes are very high if you do not hire an experienced lawyer with a track record of success in these kinds of cases.
At Darwish Law, we’ve been representing clients accused of check fraud and receiving excellent outcomes for our clients for several years. We know what is involved in developing a winning defense strategy against these charges and what to expect with the prosecution’s moves. We are ready to help you and listen to your story 24/7. Reach out to us if facing allegations for a cost-free consultation, and we will look into your case right away.
Defining a Check Fraud Offense
The crime of check fraud is defined under Penal Code (PC) 476. It is the making, writing, or passing of a fraudulent or fake check. This crime can be prosecuted as a felony or misdemeanor. PC 476 is one of two California check fraud/bad check laws. The other is PC 476(a), writing a bad check.
Elements of the Crime
For the judge to convict you of violating PC 476, the prosecution has to prove various facts beyond a reasonable doubt. These facts are what we call elements of the crime. They require that:
- You used, passed, made, possessed, or tried to use or pass an altered, false, or fictitious bill or check for property or money payment.
- You knew the check/bill was altered or false.
- When you performed your actions, you intended to defraud.
If you face a check fraud charge on the grounds of possessing a false check, then the District Attorney (DA) must also show that you intended to use or pass it on as authentic or genuine when you possessed the check.
A fake or fictitious check refers to one that’s not legal or real. These kinds of checks include one drawn from a nonexistent bank and one endorsed by an individual who does not exist. People often ask questions on what alter, use, or pass, and intent to defraud mean under this law.
Intention to Defraud
You have to act with the specific aim to defraud for you to be convicted of violating PC 476. You intend to defraud someone else if your purpose is to deceive or trick them. Note the victim mustn’t be defrauded or suffer any loss due to your actions for you to be sentenced. All that counts is your fraudulent intent.
Alter, Use, or Pass
Under this law, you pass, use, or try to use or pass a check when you represent it to another person as authentic or genuine. The representation could be made by conduct or words and may either be indirect or direct. You alter a check if you add to it, erase some information on it, or change a part of the check.
Instances that constitute check fraud include:
- A woman prints on her computer what seems to be a genuine check. She owes her friend $1000 and gives the friend this forged check as payment. When this friend tries cashing the check, the bank receives an alert, and he/she is questioned. Because he/she believed that the check was genuine and didn’t have any intent to defraud, the friend isn’t guilty of check fraud. But the woman who printed that check, aware it wasn’t real, then gave it to her friend as a genuine check, is guilty of violating Penal Code 476.
- A man retains a contractor to repair his patio. The contractor finishes his work on time, but the man isn’t satisfied and believes the work was done poorly. The contractor declines to make the changes he’s asked to do and demands that the man pay him the originally agreed-upon sum of $1100. The man, angry and believing he’s been ripped off, deliberately hands the contractor an outdated check from a bank account he knows doesn’t have any cash in it or was previously closed. The man is aware the check isn’t valid but gives it to the contractor as an authentic check anyway. Under PC 476, the man can face a check fraud charge for passing a check that’s for a bank account that’s closed or one with insufficient money.
But if the man accidentally passed the contractor a check from an old closed bank account or thought he had sufficient funds in his account to cover the check, then he wouldn’t be convicted of check fraud since he didn’t intend to defraud.
If the check you tried to cash was false and couldn’t possibly be taken seriously, then you may not be convicted of check fraud. Unless the check is of the nature that a person is likely to be defrauded by it, its simple falsity isn’t enough to sustain a check fraud conviction. Essentially, this offense requires that the check not only be false but also be something that can be taken seriously. For instance, trying to cash a check written on a piece of cloth or tissue paper won’t have you convicted of check fraud.
Consequences of Violating Check Fraud Law
If you violate this law, then you’re guilty of forgery. Check fraud is charged as a wobbler crime under the state’s law, meaning the prosecution can file either a felony or misdemeanor charge based on your criminal history and the facts surrounding the case.
If you are guilty of a misdemeanor, your punishment will include a maximum of a year in jail. You will also be subject to up to one thousand dollars in fines. If you’re guilty of a felony, the penalties you will face are up to ten thousand dollars in fines and a maximum state prison sentence of three years.
Immigration Consequences for Violating PC 476
A check fraud conviction may have detrimental immigration consequences. The U.S immigration law dictates that certain criminal convictions may result in a person being labeled inadmissible to the United States and thereby deported.
There has been at least one case in California where the judge ruled that a forgery crime was the basis for deportation. Thus, based on the circumstances surrounding your case, a conviction of check fraud may lead to negative immigration results.
Your Charges Could be Reduced to a Lesser Crime
If the facts surrounding your case allow it, the check fraud charges against you can be lowered to attempted check fraud. Per California PC 664, any failed attempt to commit an offense that’s punishable by incarceration in prison incurs a sentence that’s half the incarceration period of that attempted offense. If, for instance, the penalty for your check fraud conviction would lead to the maximum prison time of three years, lowering the charges to attempted check fraud reduces a maximum incarceration period to 18 months.
A Check Fraud Conviction and Its Impact on Gun Rights
Being convicted of check fraud could have a detrimental effect on your gun rights. Per California statute, any convicted felon is prohibited from possessing or acquiring a firearm in California. This means if the DA decides to press felony check fraud charges and you’re ultimately found guilty, you will lose your rights to possess and own a gun.
Legal Defenses to Check Fraud Allegations
You, together with your lawyer, can develop a defense strategy to try and beat check fraud charges. Common legal defenses your lawyer can argue are:
You Had no Intention to Defraud
You can only be convicted of violating PC 476 if you acted specifically, intending to defraud someone else. This means it’s a valid defense for your attorney to argue that you didn’t have this specific intent. For instance, Brad can’t be convicted of violating PC 476 if he forged the check as part of a prank. Equally, he isn’t guilty in case he altered a genuine check accidentally. But he could be convicted if he passed a fraudulent check with the specific intent of trying and tricking someone else into believing it was, indeed, genuine.
You Didn’t Know that the Check was Fraudulent.
Recall that you can only be convicted for violating PC 476 if you were aware that the check was altered or false. This means you are innocent if you didn’t have that knowledge. Maybe, for instance, you possessed the bad check accidentally.
You Had Permission to Alter the Check
Whereas the law criminalizes the altering of some information on a check, you aren’t guilty if you acted with consent and received that permission from the person responsible for that bill or check. Therefore, consent is always a legal defense.
Your lawyer could argue that even though the check is indeed fraudulent, it wasn’t you who wrote, made, or passed it to someone else. Instead, it was a case of mistaken identity. Because fraudsters try very hard and employ all means to avoid being caught, it’s not unlikely that an innocent individual can be accused.
Your attorney could also argue that:
- The supposed fake check is indeed genuine. This may involve examining the check or cross-checking bank balance records.
- The check was so obviously false that no reasonable person could be expected to take it seriously. It could be that it was only a mere prank or something else of this nature.
Note that arguing that you wrote a fraudulent check but didn’t cash it isn’t a legal defense to check fraud. Also, paying back the fraudulently acquired funds doesn’t cancel out guilt, but it might help you have your charges lowered to attempted check fraud per PC 664. Attempted check fraud would reduce the incarceration period to half of what the judge would otherwise have imposed.
Our lawyers will inspect your financial records, submit proof of your fraud-free prior criminal history, produce witnesses to testify in your favor, and contest fingerprint analyses by the prosecution. They will also find any weakness in the DA’s case to secure an acquittal or dismissal. Where this isn’t possible, they can expertly negotiate the most favorable plea deal.
Expunging a Check Fraud Conviction
If you are found guilty of a check fraud offense, you have a right to expunge the conviction record as long as you successfully complete probation or a jail sentence, whichever was imposed. If you violate the terms and conditions of probation, you could possibly still have your conviction record expunged. However, this would be at the judge’s discretion. Per PC 1203.4, erasing a conviction record releases you from nearly all penalties arising due to the conviction.
Related Offenses to Check Fraud
Related crimes to check fraud are those the prosecution can charge instead of or alongside check fraud because they have similar elements. Four offenses closely related to the California crime of check fraud are:
Penal Code 470 – Forgery
PC 470 is the state’s law that criminalizes forgery. Forgery occurs when you commit any of these acts:
- Sign another person’s name
- Fake another individual’s handwriting or a seal
- Falsify or change any valid document
- Fake, alter, or present as genuine or authentic a false document that pertains to property, finances, or money
Forgery generally becomes a critical part of the crime of check fraud if you changed or altered a check.
The crime of forgery is a wobbler. If convicted of a misdemeanor, the consequences you will face include summary probation, up to $1,000 in fines, and a jail sentence of up to a year. If you are found guilty of a felony, the punishment you’ll be subject to includes felony probation, up to $10,000 in fines, and a jail sentence of up to three years under the realignment program. However, note that forgery is a misdemeanor only if the forged document is a money order, check, or similar document and the document is valued at $950 or less.
Penal Code 487 – Grand Theft
Per PC 487, grand theft refers to the illegal taking of another person’s property worth $950 or higher. Note that you may commit grand theft by committing check fraud. In most cases, grand theft is prosecuted as a wobbler offense. If you’re found guilty of a misdemeanor grand theft offense, you will be subject to up to a year in jail. And if you’re convicted of a felony grand theft, you will face formal probation with a maximum of 12 months in jail or three or two years, or sixteen months in jail under the realignment program, except if the theft was of a firearm.
In case you commit grand theft of a gun, also referred to as grand theft firearm, the crime is always charged as a felony. There’s no option of a misdemeanor charge in this case. The possible penalties of grand theft firearm are two or three years or sixteen months in state prison.
Additionally, unlike other grand theft types, grand theft firearm is categorized as a serious felony per PC 1192.7(c). This means grand theft firearm is a strike per the state’s three-strikes law.
Penal Code 476a – Writing Bad Checks
PC 476a is the law that makes it illegal for you to pass or write a check knowing there’s not enough money to cover the payment of the check. Keep in mind that whereas Penal Code 476a applies to insufficient funds and checks, Penal Code 476 pertains to forging checks.
If you violate PC 476a, you will face misdemeanor charges if the bad check’s value is $950 or less and you don’t have certain prior convictions. In all other scenarios, this offense is prosecuted as a wobbler. If you’re guilty of a misdemeanor, your punishment will include up to $1,000 in fines and a county jail sentence that doesn’t exceed a year.
If facing a felony conviction, the penalties are up to $10,000 in fines and a jail sentence for a maximum of three years under the realignment program. Apart from the above consequences, the victim can file a civil case to recover the check’s full amount. He/she can also demand any additional damages in the amount of up to $1,500.
Penal Code 488 – Petty Theft
Stealing goods or money worth nine hundred and fifty dollars ($950) or less is considered petty theft in California. You could be prosecuted under petty theft law alongside check fraud if you obtained goods or money worth the amount we have mentioned with an altered or fake check. The crime of petty theft is prosecuted as a misdemeanor. The consequences upon conviction include up to one thousand dollars in fines and a maximum jail sentence of one year.
Contact a Competent Fraud Crimes Lawyer Near Me
At Darwish Law, we have a proven track record of success in defending against check fraud charges in Santa Ana, California. Our comprehensive knowledge of the state’s law, longtime experience with court processes, and knowledge of most prosecutors and judges in the city uniquely suit us to beat the charges against you. Contact our Santa Ana criminal lawyer anytime at 714-887-4810 to share the details about your case in our cost-free consultation.