A significant number of California residents rely on welfare aid to take care of themselves and their families. Given this large number, there have been cases of people obtaining or trying to obtain these benefits illegally for fear of being left out either for themselves or other people. If you are found fraudulently obtaining welfare benefits, you can face welfare fraud charges. A conviction for these charges can have severe non-criminal as well as criminal consequences. Apart from being prohibited from acquiring these benefits in the future, you could also end up in jail or prison.
If facing these charges, it's critical to defend yourself. It's not uncommon for false accusations to be made and be a victim. Even if there aren't false allegations, defending yourself could result in the best possible outcome as the prosecution may fail to prove all the facts of the case.
Hiring a lawyer to handle your case is the best way of achieving a positive outcome for your case. At Darwish Law, we strive to defend the rights of people facing welfare fraud charges in Santa Ana, CA. We'll do everything we can to defeat the charges against you. So call us now, and let's start building a solid defense right away.
The Legal Meaning of California Welfare Fraud
California Welfare & Institutions Code (WIC) Section 10980 describes the crime of welfare fraud. This crime occurs when a person makes a false statement or fails to report critical information when applying for any public program to obtain benefits for which they're not otherwise eligible. Most types of benefits-related fraud are illegalized under Welfare & Institutions Code (WIC) 10980. You fall under this statute when you:
- Apply for aid under multiple names or submit several applications to acquire multiple benefits.
- Fail to give relevant information or intentionally misstate information to increase, retain, or obtain welfare benefits you don't deserve.
- Counterfeit, alter, possess, sell, purchase, acquire, transfer, or use:
- Actual food stamps OR
- Authorizations to obtain food stamps.
WIC 10980 describes two primary types of welfare fraud—internal and recipient fraud. The latter is the most common type. It occurs when a person provides incomplete or false information to obtain food stamps, Medi-Cal benefits, or any other benefits to which they are not lawfully entitled to. Internal fraud happens when government workers distribute or assign benefits to people they know aren't eligible.
In most cases, welfare fraud is a wobbler, meaning the prosecution can file either misdemeanor or felony charges. A conviction could mean fines, restitution, possible jail or prison term, and probation. However, if you pay back a significant part of or all the money, you can face a lenient sentence and, at times, a dismissal of charges altogether.
Prosecutors receive welfare fraud-related cases from several sources. Most prosecutor offices have their welfare fraud units committed to trying these kinds of crimes. Additionally, DAs receive case referrals from:
- Tips received on statewide public reporting hotlines.
- Local departments for social service agencies who supervise the distribution of benefits.
- Public reports welfare fraud websites and hotlines provided by their offices.
- Any other agency that suspects potential welfare fraud crime.
Investigators start investigating by reaching out to the supposed recipients and questioning them concerning the benefits they're presently receiving and the information they gave to receive those benefits. They may also reach out to co-workers, friends, neighbors, and family to obtain further information that could be useful in proving or negating the welfare fraud claims.
On the other hand, witness interviews or unexpected home visits often reveal additional matters like domestic violence, elder abuse, child neglect/abuse, or proof of drug offenses. As a result, agencies like Family Support Services, Adult Protective Services, Child Welfare Services, or any other authority applicable to the case might also be involved in the ongoing investigations.
After the investigator compiles the relevant information, they present it to the assistant DA, who reviews it to establish if filing criminal charges is justified. If the prosecutor believes there's enough information to prosecute, they'll file charges (generally under WIC 10980 and potentially under any other related statute). Otherwise, they would return the case to the relevant investigator to collect more details, establish that there's enough proof that sustains a conviction, and simply dismiss the charges or put the case in a welfare fraud diversion program.
Instances that Constitute Welfare Fraud
We mentioned that we have two primary types of welfare fraud—internal and recipient fraud.
Internal fraud occurs when a government employee who gives out welfare benefits distributes/collects or attempts to distribute/collect illegal aid from the agency. Mostly, this kind of inside job happens when eligible government workers falsify applications for unqualified family or friends and divide the proceeds. In addition, employees may falsify claims regarding income, fail to report facts, or come up with fictitious children, which would normally disqualify these family members or friends from obtaining benefits.
If accused of internal fraud, you will be charged with fraud and be subject to embezzlement charges. You commit embezzlement when you illegally take funds or any other valuable property that a person has entrusted you with.
It implies that if you are a social worker who controls the distribution of welfare benefits or knows ways of dodging procedures before benefits are authorized and misappropriate those benefits, then you will be subject to prison time up to three years. And in case you embezzle over $65,000, you'll be subject to an additional and consecutive prison sentence of up to four years.
Per WIC 10980, recipient fraud is committed by people who receive or unlawfully try to receive benefits for which they are not eligible. Even though there are several ways of committing recipient fraud, we have more prevalent ones than others. Common instances of welfare fraud occur when a person attempts to acquire illegal benefits by:
- Obtaining benefits from a different state to add to those they acquired in California.
- Filing a claim for ineligible or fictitious children.
- Bringing a claim for children who don't reside in their home.
- Failure to report extra income or any other benefits.
- Claiming that they're a single parent whereas the minor's other parent resides in their home (i.e., absent parent living at home).
Penalties of Welfare Fraud
The penalties of welfare fraud depend on what section of WIC 10980 you violate. We have violations that are straight felonies, others are straight misdemeanors, while others are wobblers. Wobblers are crimes that the District Attorney may file either as a felony or a misdemeanor depending on your criminal record and the facts surrounding your specific case.
Possible Punishments for Violations under WIC 10980
- False Statements
If you are accused of making any misleading or false statement to acquire benefits, you'll face misdemeanor charges, punishable by a jail sentence for a period not exceeding six months and up to $500 in fines.
- Submitting Fraudulent Applications
You'll face wobbler charges if you're guilty of bringing a false application due to:
- Filing several applications for one person
- Applying for benefits for an imaginary individual, or
- Applying for aid using an untrue identity
If convicted of a felony, you will face 16 months to 3 years in jail and a maximum fine of $5,000. A misdemeanor conviction is punished by a jail sentence of up to a year and a maximum fine of $1,000.
- Retaining or Obtaining Benefits
Retaining or obtaining fraudulent aid is charged as a misdemeanor offense if you indeed retained or acquired fraudulent aid and the benefits totaling $950 or less. Consequences include up to $500 in fines and a jail sentence not exceeding 6 months. But if the benefits were for over $950, you will be subject to a felony conviction, which is punished by a maximum of $5,000 in fines and 16 months to 3 years in jail.
Concerning food stamps, should you be found guilty of taking part in an activity with illegal blank authorizations to engage in the food stamp program, you'll be charged with a felony. Its punishments include a fine not exceeding $5,000 and 16 months to 3 years in jail. However, it's a wobbler crime to possess, purchase, sell, transfer, or use food stamps, food stamp authorizations, or electronically transferred aid in an illegal way.
If the food stamp authorizations or food stamp aid is valued at $950 or lower, it's a misdemeanor offense, punished by a maximum of $500 in fines and a six-month jail sentence. However, if the value is above $950, it will be a felony punishable by a maximum of $5,000 in fines and a jail sentence of not more than 6 months.
- Electronically Transferred Aid
You will be subject to more penalties if you're guilty of a PC 10980 violation and the crime was to do with electronically transferred aid. This means that in addition to the welfare fraud sentence, you'll be subject to an additional and consecutive:
- 4 years when the transferred benefits are $2,500,000.
- Up to 3 years when the transfer is more than one million dollars.
- 2 years in case the transferred benefits are more than $150,000.
- 1 year in jail if the transferred benefits are more than $50,000.
Apart from the consequences mentioned above, a welfare fraud conviction will subject you to:
- Disqualification from obtaining any future public assistance benefits.
- Removal or deportation if you're an alien or legal immigrant.
- Professional penalties if you have a California state license (because criminal convictions may adversely impact professional licenses), particularly when the offense is categorized as a moral turpitude offense which is generally the case as far as fraud crimes are concerned.
Restitution Instead of a Criminal Charge
Based on the facts, there are instances when you might be capable of repaying your fraudulently acquired benefits without being criminally charged. Most counties in California, including San Francisco and Fresno, provide diversion programs for welfare fraud. Individual-based diversion programs vary. However, generally, they allow persons with no or criminal record and who haven't deprived the state/county of so much money the chance to pay back the funds in exchange for a case dismissal.
Typically, you have to enter a guilty plea to the charges. If you complete a diversion program then repay the funds you fraudulently acquired, the judge will dismiss your case. Otherwise, the court pronounces judgment and then imposes a sentence.
Suppose the prosecutor is unwilling to agree that you pay restitution in place of filing a criminal charge. In that case, voluntarily paying back all your fraudulently-obtained benefits might convince the court to lower your sentence.
Legal Defenses to Welfare Fraud
Luckily, there are several legal defenses an expert fraud defense attorney can help you argue to beat the welfare fraud charges against you. The most prevalent ones include:
Prosecuting attorneys for welfare fraud cases are mainly concerned with recovering funds for the state or county. If you can repay a considerable part of or all the money you're accused of defrauding, the DA is usually willing to agree to give you a lighter sentence or lower the charges against you.
Mistaken Identity/False Accusations
This legal defense applies best in internal welfare fraud allegations, though it can work with recipient fraud accusations as well. Even if there's a legitimate welfare fraud claim, it does not necessarily imply that you're the guilty person. It could be that you've been accused of this crime, yet if applicants are family or friends, they may be trying to take advantage of your position. Or, maybe they presented incorrect information on their application forms, and since you're close, you merely assumed that they were giving the correct details and did not verify them as they should have. This form of negligence may warrant you losing your job. However, it should not result in criminal liability.
Alternatively, suppose you're accused of recipient fraud based on the element that a fictitious minor is listed on the application you made. Or, perhaps the boyfriend/girlfriend you live with altered the application before submitting it for you. It could also be that a person applied for benefits using your social security number and name. Or that you're an identity theft victim, and you didn't know that someone else was illegally using your details.
You may even be falsely accused of this crime because of clerical mistakes. It is not uncommon for government bodies to make mistakes.
The point is, there are many reasons why a person could falsely accuse you of this crime. However, irrespective of the reason, your lawyer may have the resources and inside knowledge that can enable them to investigate the facts surrounding the case and prove your innocence.
Suppose you are accused of committing internal fraud. Your employer reported you after noticing that you had suspicious contact with a few of the benefits applications, documents were missing from your case file, and you had multiple duplicate files.
Even though this proof seems incriminating, it is not conclusive. The judge should acquit you of the charges if there is no actual evidence of you embezzling funds. Unless the prosecution can show that you are guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, you should be acquitted.
You Did Not Have Any Fraudulent Intent
Irrespective of what fraud law the DA accuses you of breaking, they cannot convict you except if they show that you intended to defraud. If the prosecution cannot demonstrate that you committed the act specifically intending to defraud, you cannot be convicted of welfare fraud.
This implies that your lawyer may claim you believed you presented a valid claim to receive those benefits, and the omissions or incorrect statements were inadvertent. Alternatively, the lawyer may also assert that you did not know that you were required to report gifts, inheritance, or lottery winnings to the relevant department, or you merely forgot to update your status after the child became unqualified for benefits.
Related Offenses to Welfare Fraud
Since welfare fraud often involves theft, perjury, and forgery allegations, the DA may bring these charges alongside charges under WIC 10980.
PC 182 Conspiracy
PC 182 criminalizes conspiracy to commit an offense. If you scheme with someone else, i.e., agree with them to do an illegal act to acquire fraudulent welfare aid, you'll face felony charges similarly punishable as welfare fraud. Conspiracy charges are mostly filed in connection with internal fraud charges where the worker was organizing for illegal aid to be given to their family or friends.
PC 118 Perjury
Violating PC 118 is a felony offense. If convicted, you will face up to $10,000 in fines and 2 to 4 years in county jail.
You commit perjury when you intentionally give false information while under oath to tell the truth. This means if, for instance, you apply for welfare aid using a false name, social security number, or any other deliberately falsified information in your application, the DA may prosecute you under both PC 118 and WIC 10980.
PC 470 Forgery
PC 470 illegalizes knowingly using, creating, or altering any written documents with intent to commit fraud. By this, it implies that if, for instance, you:
- Submit a welfare benefits application by signing another person's name as the actual applicant,
- Alter or counterfeit food stamps, OR
- Use food stamps you are aware are altered or counterfeit.
Then the DA may choose to press forgery charges. Forgery is a wobbler offense. A felony can be punished by up to $10,000 in fines and 16 months to 3 years in jail.
PC 487 Grand Theft
PC 487 prohibits illegally taking an entity or someone else's property valued at more than $950. Property, in this case, includes personal property, labor, land, or money. By this, it means if you illegally acquire unemployment aid that totals over $950, the DA may prosecute you under both PC 487 and WIC 10980. In addition, grand theft is a wobbler, punished up to $10,000 in fines and 16 months to 3 years in jail.
Find a Santa Ana Criminal Defense Attorney Near Me
At Darwish Law, we are ready to defend you when you are facing welfare fraud charges. We boast several years of experience and in-depth knowledge of the California welfare fraud law and know how to develop a solid defense for every specific case. If facing charges in Santa Ana or the surrounding areas, call us any time at 714-887-4810 for a cost-free consultation and to share the details of your case.