Forgery Laws in Iowa

By , Contributing Author

Forgery—creating, using, or possessing a false document with the intent to defraud or injure anyone— is a crime in Iowa. The sections below explain how this crime can be committed, and how it is punished.

Forgery in Iowa

In Iowa, a person is guilty of forgery if, with intent to defraud or injure anyone (or while knowingly facilitating a fraud or injury), the person

  • alters a writing without permission (for example, switching the numbers on your pay check to steal money from your employer)
  • makes, issues, or transfers a writing that purports to be the act of another without authorization from that person to do so, as could happen if an patient created a false doctor's note to get time off of work
  • creates or alters documents that purport to be executed at a time or place, or in a numbered sequence other than was in fact the case (this might arise if someone alters the date of a contract or a will to make it seem as though the document was the latest, and therefore controlling expression of a business agreement or someone's wishes for their estate)
  • creates or alters documents that purport to be a copy of an original document that never in fact existed (for instance, forging an honorable military discharge document to gain veteran benefits when you never in fact served in the armed forces), or
  • knowingly possesses or uses any of the above-mentioned documents.

(Ia. Code Ann. § 715A.2.)

While any of these circumstances or types of documents may be at issue in a forgery case, to gain a conviction the prosecutor must prove several elements (or parts) of the crime, described next.

Making, altering, issuing, using, or possessing

The first element of forgery requires that the defendant took some action with regard to a writing that would have significant consequences. In Iowa, these actions include making, altering, issuing, using, or possessing a writing in this manner.

For example, secretly altering your grandmother's will it to leave everything to you would be a material alteration because the change would cause significant legal consequences. Notice that you may also be charged with forgery for merely possessing such a will, even if you yourself did not change it, if you possess it with the intent to defraud potential beneficiaries.

A false writing

Not all writings are included in the definition of forgery. Writings that are included have two characteristics: they must be of legal significance, and the writing must be false, as discussed below.

The writing must have apparent legal significance. In order to be punishable as forgery, the writing in question must have apparent legal significance. Government-issued documents like driver's licenses and money are included here, as well as legal documents (like wills, medical prescriptions, and deeds of sale). The key, however, is the legal significance, so to be included here, a document need not be a legal or government-issued document--it must simply affect legal rights and obligations. Recommendation letters for a job or college application are examples of this kind of writing. In contrast, a non-significant writing might include a note to your housekeeper in which you sign your partner's name.

The writing must be false. To be false, a writing must have been intentionally altered or fabricated in a way that would lead a potential victim of forgery to believe that the document is something it is not, or represents something that it does not. For example, someone might fabricate a business agreement that was never actually negotiated and agreed upon, or alter a contract that was agreed upon but, because of the forged alteration, now reads in a way that significantly changes the original agreement.

A document with a simple error in it is not a false document, rather, the document must have purposely been altered to mislead the reader.

With the intent to defraud

Finally, in addition to the elements described above, the defendant must have taken some action with regard to the false document with the specific purpose of defrauding someone (or some organization). Note that it is the intent to defraud, not the success of the scheme that matters for a conviction. Therefore, a defendant who created a false letter of recommendation to get a job has committed forgery before he even gets to the post office to send the letter.

This element protects people who possess or sign fraudulent documents without knowing they are false from being subject to criminal liability. For example, if you buy a boat, but later find out that the shipyard's documents were fabricated by the seller, you would not be subject to forgery charges for the possession of the forged title because you had no intent to defraud.

(Ia. Code Ann. § 715A.2.)

Forgery Punishments

Iowa punishes forgery according to the type of writing involved in the crime. Forgeries involving money, securities, postage, government-issued instruments and similar specified writings are class D felonies. Penalties include a fine of at least $750 (and up to $7,500), up to five years' in prison, or both.

Forgeries involving a will, deed, contract, commercial instrument, or any other writing or other document evidencing, creating, transferring, altering, terminating, or otherwise affecting legal relations are aggravated misdemeanors. Penalties include a fine of at least $625 (and up to $6,250), up to two years in jail, or both.

(Ia. Code Ann. § 715A.2.)

A Note on Federal Law

While each state has its own laws addressing forgery and related offenses, this crime is sometimes handled in federal rather than state court. This occurs when an offenses involves federal documents (such as passports, work visas, and some military records), forgery with the purpose of defrauding the federal government, when the forged document travels across state lines, and other similar circumstances. To read more about forgery in general, including federal forgery law, see Forgery Laws and Penalties.

Talk to a Lawyer

Talk to a local criminal defense lawyer if you have been charged with forgery or a related offense, or if you have questions about how state law applies to your situation. As you now know, fines and jail or prison terms for forgery convictions are harsh, and only a qualified attorney can help you determine the best course of action for your case.

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