Forgery—creating, using, or possessing a false document with the intent to defraud someone— is a crime in Kentucky. Kentucky law breaks this crime into three categories, with increasingly severe punishments. These and related laws and penalties are described below.
Forgery may occur in a number of different circumstances under Kentucky law, but the prosecutor must prove each of the elements (or parts) of this crime beyond a reasonable doubt to gain a conviction in every case. These elements are described next.
This element requires that the defendant took some action with regard to a writing; either to create a document or change an existing writing in a way that would have significant legal consequences.
Forging someone’s signature on a release of liability after an accident occurs (to try and avoid liability for any injury) is one example of how someone might create or alter a writing that would satisfy this element. However, not all writings are included in the definition of forgery. Those included are described next.
Writings that count for a forgery charge must have these two characteristics: they must be of legal significance, and the writing must be false, as discussed below. To prove this second element, the prosecutor must prove that the writing in question falls into both of these categories.
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 necessarily be a legal or government-issued document. It must simply have legal significance, which means that it affects 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 in which you sign your roommate's name, telling the dog-sitter where the dog food is kept.
As you will learn below, the type of document involved determines the category of forgery crime that will be charged.
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. A mere error in a document does not make it false.
Finally, in addition to the elements described above, the prosecutor must prove that the defendant took the action with regard to the false document with the specific purpose of defrauding, deceiving or injuring someone (or some organization). Notice that it is the intent to defraud, not the actual success of the scheme that matters for a conviction. Therefore, a defendant who created a false letter of recommendation to falsely gain admittance to his college of choice 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 house, but later find out that the title 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 anyone.
(Ky. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 516.020.)
Kentucky punishes forgery according the type of document involved in the crime.
Forgery in the first degree includes offenses involving money, stamps, securities or other valuable instruments issued by a government or governmental agency; or part of an issue of stock, bonds, or other instruments representing interests in or claims against a corporate or other organization or its property.
Forgery in the first degree is a Class C felony, and penalties include at least five (and up to ten) years in prison. (Ky. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 516.020.)
Forgery in the second degree includes offenses involving a deed, will, codicil, contract, assignment, commercial instrument, credit card or other instrument which does or may affect a legal right, interest, obligation or status; or a public record or an instrument filed, required, authorized by law to be filed in a public office or with a public employee; or a written instrument officially issued or created by a public office, public employee or governmental agency.
Forgery in the second degree is a Class D felony, which incurs at least one year (and up to five years) in prison. (Ky. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 516.030.)
Forgery in the third degree is a catch all category, and includes writings not included in first and second degree forgery. This is a Class A misdemeanor, which incurs a fine of up to $500, at least 90 days (and up to one year) in jail, or both. (Ky. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 516.040.)
Kentucky also punishes use (or possessing with intent to use) of a false document with the intent to defraud. Sometimes also called “uttering a false document,” this crime does not include the making or altering as described above, but rather the possession or use of such a document with the same fraudulent intent.
When the crime involved any of the documents described under forgery in the first degree, the crime is called “criminal possession of a forged instrument in the first degree,” and, like forgery in the first degree is also a Class C felony. (Ky. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 516.050.) The same is true for criminal possession in the second and third degrees; they correspond to the type of document and applicable penalties as described for forgery, above. (Ky. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 516.060 & -070.)
To learn more about this topic, see our article, What is possession of a forged instrument in Kentucky?
It is also a crime to possess a device for creating forged documents, such as a die cast for forging money. This crime is a Class D felony and, in addition to the applicable prison term, the state will confiscate and dispose of the device, too. (Ky. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 516.090 & -100.)
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.
If you have been charged with forgery or a related crime, or have questions about how state law applies to you, contact an experienced local criminal defense attorney. Only a qualified lawyer can provide legal advice, including how to best handle the unique circumstances of your case.