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American Law Of Forgery

As with their English antecedents, early American prohibitions of forgery focused more on the types of documents covered than on clarifying the definition of the crime itself. As a result, a rather technical body of case law developed. The most important effort to simplify and rationalize the law was the American Law Institute's Model Penal Code of 1962, variations of which were gradually adopted by the states. However, the principal federal forgery statute, which prohibits false making, forgery, or alteration of any writing for the purpose of obtaining or receiving any sum of money from the United States government, has remained virtually unchanged since its enactment (An Act for the punishment of frauds committed on the government of the United States, ch. 38, 3 Stat. 771 (1823)). This law, codified under 18 U.S.C. § 495 (1999), contains no definition of its central term, forges, and has been authoritatively interpreted by the United States Supreme Court to cover only that conduct which was understood as forgery in 1823 (Gilbert v. United States, 370 U.S. 650 (1962)). The definition of forgery applied in a state prosecution is determined by the statutes of that state and by start-court interpretation of those laws.

Interpretative issues. The problems of interpretation in forgery prosecutions may be grouped around the three key elements of the common law offense: false making, writing, and intent to defraud.

Although a few jurisdictions have held to the contrary, the notion of false making in forgery generally refers only to a document's authenticity and not to the veracity of any factual assertions within it. A written statement may be full of lies and used to cheat, but this does not make it a forgery; on the other hand, an otherwise legitimate deed on which the date of filing has been altered, or the name of one person has been signed by another without permission, is a forgery. Similarly, a document with a genuine signature that has been procured by fraud or trickery is generally not considered a forgery, although a few jurisdictions have held that it is.

In the absence of a contrary statute, a writing is not considered forged unless it might deceive a person of ordinary observation or prudence. Moreover, unless the legislature has prescribed otherwise, the writing must have some apparent legal efficacy in terms of private or public rights; if it is completely innocuous or void on its face, it cannot be a forgery. For example, a check that requires two signatures but has only one cannot be a forgery, even if the one signature which appears is false. In addition, because only writings are covered, the fraudulent simulation of valuable objects, as in art forgery, is nor within the traditional definition.

In forgery, the mens rea (culpable state of mind) is generally an intent to defraud, meaning a purpose to deceive or cheat another person or entity out of his or its legal due. There is no requirement that the intent involve a potential advantage to the forger, or that the fraudulent intention be successfully achieved.

Defenses and evidence. There are three principal defenses to charges of forgery. First, a person may have, or believe he has, the authority to sign another's name; or an alteration may be intended to correct what is genuinely believed to be an error in a document. In either event, there would be no intent to defraud, and probably no false making. Second, even if the document is clearly forged, the prosecution may not be able to prove by legally admissible evidence that the accused is the person who forged it. Finally in a surprising number of cases, it is difficult to prove that the writing is not genuine. For example, the true payee often has a motive to deny receiving and cashing a check, so that a duplicate may be issued.

The testimony of a layperson is admissible evidence to identify handwriting with which he is familiar. However, where the issue is either the identity of the forger or the genuineness of the document, an expert questioned-document examiner will often have to make comparisons between the writing at issue and known exemplars of the handwriting of both the accused and the true payee. The techniques of scientific analysis sometimes do not provide a satisfactory answer, and the prosecution consequently fails.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawForgery - History, American Law Of Forgery, Related Offenses, The Future Of Forgery Laws, Bibliography