It is illegal to create, use, or possess a false document in Louisiana with the intent to use it to defraud someone. Called “forgery,” this crime and its penalties are discussed below.
In Louisiana, forgery may occur under a number of circumstances and may involve many kinds of documents. However, all forgery cases have the following elements in common, each of which the prosecutor must prove beyond a reasonable doubt in order to gain a conviction.
The first element involves the defendant’s behavior with regard to a document. Specifically, the prosecutor must show that the defendant
(14 La. Stat. Ann. § 72(B).)
Notice that all of the ways in which a defendant may forge a document include a common theme: the defendant took some action with regard to a document in a way that would have significant legal consequences. Forging your grandmother’s signature on a false will would count because this action has the potential to affect her (and her heirs') legal rights. In contrast, signing your friend’s name on a get-well card is unlikely to have any serious ramifications.
So many, though not all actions meet the requirement of this first element. Similarly, many, though not all documents themselves are included in the definition of forgery, described next.
Writings that count for a forgery charge must have two characteristics: they must be of legal significance, and must be false. To satisfy this second element, the prosecutor must show that the writing in question is included in both of these categories, as discussed below.
The writing 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 while a legal or government-issued document counts, the category is broader to include any document that affects legal rights and obligations.
Recommendation letters for a job or college application are examples of this kind of writing. In contrast, a non-legally significant writing might include a note telling the dog-sitter where the dog food is kept, or a birthday card for your co-worker.
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. Rather, this quality of falseness comes from the fact that it was purposely altered to mislead the reader.
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 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 car, 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.
(14 La. Stat. Ann. § 72.)
In Louisiana forgery usually incurs a fine of up to $5,000, up to ten years in prison, or both. (14 La. Stat. Ann. § 72(D).)
If the crime involves knowingly using a forged academic record (for example, listing a degree on your resume that you never in fact earned), the penalties include a fine of up to $5,000, up to six months in jail, or both. (14 La. Stat. Ann. § 72.1.)
And forgery involving certificates or proof of insurance (such as in the example described above) incurs its own penalties. If the offense involved making or distributing forged insurance documents, penalties include a fine of up to $5,000, up to five years in prison, or both. And if the crime involved knowing possession, the punishment includes a fine of up to $500, up to six months in jail, or both. (14 La. Stat. Ann. § 72.1.1.)
Each state has its own forgery laws, but sometimes a forgery offense will be handled under federal law (and in federal court). This happens when the forged writing was a federal document, like a passport or work visa, and also when the purpose of the crime was to defraud the federal government. And when a forged document travels across state lines, and in several other similar circumstances, the crime is also handled in federal court. 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.