Fake ID: Laws and Penalties

Fake ID crimes might seem inconsequential, yet they're anything but that.

By , J.D.
Updated by Rebecca Pirius, Attorney · Mitchell Hamline School of Law
Updated July 22, 2022

False identification documents, or fake IDs, have been around as long as the real thing. Having the proper identification allows you any number of privileges, from obtaining alcohol to cashing a check and renting an apartment. With the widespread use of photo editing software and high-quality printing, creating a fake ID is easier today than it ever has been.

But it's also a crime that states have been punishing in an increasingly severe manner, with many states punishing people with fake IDs as felons. All states have fake ID laws, though how the crime is categorized and punished, differs from state to state.

What Is a Fake ID?

A false or fake ID is any form of identification that is forged, altered, or otherwise purports to establish the false identity of a person. For example, you could create a fake ID by taking a photo of yourself and printing an imitation state driver's license on your computer. Because the state license must be issued by a government agency, your ID is fraudulent and not a legal ID. On the other hand, you can also have a fake ID if you steal someone else's legitimate driver's license and try to use it as your own.

Crimes Involving Fake IDs

Fake ID laws cover a wide range of activities. States have a variety of laws that punish false ID crimes, and different actions can result in different crimes. Generally, these laws prohibit anyone from making or selling false documents, altering legitimate documents, purchasing them, using them, or possessing them. They also cover fraudulent use of a real ID.

Making and Selling Fake IDs

Making and selling fake IDs can carry felony penalties. These crimes involve forging government documents, which increases the severity. Penalties may depend on the number of fake IDs involved. If the crime involves a federal document, like a passport, a person could face federal criminal charges.

Having a Fake ID

Getting caught with a fake ID is one of the most common ID offenses. You can be charged with possession of a fake ID even if you never try to use it to try, for example, to illegally buy cigarettes.

Using Someone Else's ID

False identification laws also penalize people who use a real ID, even though that ID isn't their own. For example, a college student might borrow a friend's ID in order to get into a bar or buy alcohol. Using borrowed or stolen IDs is a false ID crime, though some states have specific laws that make using a borrowed ID a less severe crime than using, for example, a forged document. (Stealing an ID can mean additional charges.)

Using a Fake ID

Using a fake ID is another common crime. The penalty may depend on the reason for using the ID. For instance, felony penalties may apply if a person uses any ID in an attempt to establish a false identity. Presenting a fake ID to purchase alcohol, butane, or a vape pen will generally mean misdemeanor penalties.

Fake ID Penalties

Because there are a wide range of crimes that can result if you carry, make, or use a fake ID, there are also a wide range of possible penalties associated.

Misdemeanor and Felony Penalties for Fake IDs

In most situations where a person uses a fake ID, the crime is charged as a misdemeanor offense. However, false IDs can also result in felony charges depending on the situation and the state, such as if you use a fake ID to purchase a firearm or if you have a fake driver's license. In some states, possessing any forged government identification is a felony offense.

  • Jail. If you're convicted of a false ID crime, you may have to spend time in jail. However, even though state laws may allow a jail sentence, they aren't always used as penalties in fake ID crimes, especially for misdemeanor crimes and first-time offenders. A misdemeanor fake ID crime can bring up to a year in jail as a possible sentence, though less time, such as 30 or 90 days, is common. A felony fake ID offense can result in a year or more of incarceration, and sometimes as much as 10 years.
  • Fines. Fines are a much more common penalty for fake ID crimes, though the specific amounts vary significantly. A first-time fake ID offender may face a fine of up to $1,000 or more, but smaller fines of $500 or less are more common in misdemeanor offenses. Felony offenses can result in fines of as much as $100,000.
  • Probation. Probation is also a common sentence for a fake ID conviction. When given a probation sentence, a judge orders you to comply with specific conditions over a period of time. Probation conditions include regularly reporting to a probation officer, notifying the officer if you intend to leave town, not associating with known criminals, maintaining employment, and paying all required fines, probation fees, and court costs. Failure to comply with these conditions can result in the court extending probation or imposing a jail sentence.

Minor in Possession Crimes for Fake IDs

Many, if not most, fake ID crimes involve people under the age of 21 or 18 who try to use a fake ID to obtain alcohol or cigarettes. The possession or use of false identification is a crime by itself, and if you use the ID to do something illegal, you can face additional charges and penalties for the illegal activity. If, for example, you use the ID to buy alcohol and you are under 21, you can also be charged with being a minor in possession of alcohol in addition to the fake ID charge.

Are Retailers Responsible for Identifying Fake IDs?

State laws also require some establishments, such as those that sell alcohol, tobacco products, or firearms, to verify the age of a person by verifying the person's identification. It is the business's duty to ensure the ID presented is a valid one, and to ensure that it actually belongs to the person using it. If a retailer fails to properly inspect or verify an ID, it faces potential penalties from the state. These can include fines, license suspensions, and even license revocation. However, states typically allow retailers to avoid these penalties if the retailer uses reasonable methods to attempt to verify that the ID is valid.

Talk to an Attorney

Getting caught with a fake ID can seem inconsequential and harmless, yet it's anything but. Even if you've never been convicted of a crime before, getting caught using a fake ID can result in serious penalties. If you're convicted of a felony offense, the conviction will follow you for the rest of your life. Even a misdemeanor offense can pose problems because this type of conviction makes you look untrustworthy, making it much harder for you to find a job or get into college or the military.

It's in your best interests to speak to a local criminal defense lawyer as soon as you have a fake ID confiscated, are questioned by the police, or are charged with a fake ID crime. Local attorneys can give you advice about your case because they not only know the applicable laws, but they also have experience with area prosecutors and judges. Talking to a qualified criminal defense attorney as soon as possible is the best way to protect your rights anytime you're facing a fake ID charge.

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