A retailer, merchant, or individual may be defrauded by unknowingly accepting counterfeit currency. The person who uses counterfeit cash to purchase goods or services may be arrested and charged with a crime or crimes. But what if the person who has offered the false money claims to have not known that the money was counterfeit? Has the person actually committed a crime?
The use of counterfeit currency can violate both federal and state law.
Under federal law, the use or attempted use of counterfeit currency is illegal if the person has the intent to defraud the recipient. A conviction for the offense carries up to 20 years in prison and a fine.
A conviction for producing counterfeit currency similarly carries a maximum sentence of 20 years imprisonment and a fine, as does a conviction for merely possessing counterfeit currency.
All of these crimes require that the prosecutor prove that the defendant acted with the intent to defraud.
(18 U.S.C. §§ 471, 472 (2020).)
States also punish people who use counterfeit currency. A person suspected of passing fake money may be charged with one or more crimes, including forgery, fraud, or other theft-related offenses. Examples of state penalties are below.
Maryland law, for example, prohibits a person from knowingly possessing or issuing, with unlawful intent, counterfeit U.S. currency. Violation of this statute is a misdemeanor carrying up to three years' imprisonment and a $1,000 fine. (Md. Code, Crim. Law § 8-604.1 (2020).)
In Minnesota, penalties for knowingly passing or offering fake currency depend on the face value of the currency or the amount of property or services the person attempted to obtain. If the face value or property or services sought are less than $1,000, the crime is a misdemeanor with a maximum penalty of one year's jail time. The maximum sentence is a 20-year felony for a crime involving knowingly offering fake currency with a face value of more than $35,000 or seeking more than $35,000 in property or services. (Minn. Stat. § 609.632 (2020).)
A person who uses counterfeit cash in Georgia may be charged under the state’s forgery statute. Georgia defines forgery as the making, altering, or possessing of a writing made in a fictitious name; or the making or altering of the writing in a manner so that it purports to have been made by another person, with different terms, or with another person’s authority. The person making, altering, or possessing the writing must have the intent to defraud in order to be guilty of forgery, and the defendant must "utter" or deliver the forged writing to be guilty of forgery in the first degree. The definition of a writing includes currency, while utter means to represent that the writing is legitimate. Forgery in the first degree in Georgia is a felony carrying up to 15 years in prison. (Ga. Code §§ 16-9-1, 16-9-2 (2020); Ebenezer v. State, 383 S.E.2d 373 (Ga. App. 1989); Grimes v. State, 537 S.E.2d 720 (2000).)
In order to convict a defendant of this crime, the prosecutor must prove that the defendant acted with criminal intent. In the context of charges stemming from the alleged use of counterfeit currency, the prosecutor must prove that the defendant acted with the intent to defraud.
Criminal intent can be proved by direct evidence, such as a defendant's confession that he meant to defraud the victim. But more often, it is proved using circumstantial evidence. The law allows a jury (or judge, if the defendant chooses to have a trial without a jury) to make reasonable inferences from circumstantial evidence presented at trial. Circumstantial evidence is evidence that allows the jury or judge to make an inference in order to determine the existence of a fact.
The jury or judge may, for example, infer that the defendant intended to defraud a retailer if the prosecutor presents evidence that the defendant wore a disguise when paying for merchandise. The prosecutor would argue that the jury or judge should infer from the circumstantial evidence (the defendant’s disguise) that the defendant was attempting to hide his identity because he was attempting to defraud the retailer by passing counterfeit cash.
A jury or judge may, on the other hand, determine that the circumstantial evidence does not support an inference of intent. For example, although the prosecutor may introduce store security video showing the defendant wearing a disguise, the defense attorney may introduce evidence that the defendant was in costume, on the way to a Halloween party. During closing argument, the defense attorney would urge the jury or judge to make the reasonable inference that supports the theory that the defendant was unaware that the cash was counterfeit and therefore should be acquitted.
A person charged with using counterfeit currency may have one or more defenses available. As with all criminal charges, the prosecutor must prove every element of a crime beyond a reasonable doubt in order to obtain a conviction. In counterfeit currency cases, however, lack of knowledge and intent is perhaps the most commonly raised defense.
As in the above hypothetical scenario, a defendant may argue a lack of knowledge that the currency was counterfeit. With such a defense, the defendant’s attorney attempts to persuade the jury (or the judge, if the case is being tried without a jury) that the defendant did not know that the cash used was counterfeit and therefore could not have the intended to defraud the recipient. If the counterfeit bills are poor quality forgeries, the prosecutor may counter the defense by asserting that the defendant could not have reasonably believed that the forgeries were legitimate bills.
The prosecutor may also counter the defendant’s lack-of-knowledge defense by arguing that the defendant’s behavior indicates knowledge that the cash was counterfeit. For example, the prosecutor may introduce evidence that the defendant acted unusually when making the purchase with the fake cash. Such evidence may include witness testimony that the defendant acted nervously when making the transaction.
If you are charged with using counterfeit currency, you should speak with an attorney immediately. A conviction under federal or state law for passing forged money can carry a lengthy prison sentence. An attorney will evaluate your case and explore possible defenses to the charge. An attorney will provide essential guidance throughout the criminal process, all while protecting your liberty and ensuring the most favorable outcome for your case.