Maryland punishes forgery—the creation, use, or possession (with intent to use) of a false writing with the intent to defraud someone—according to the type of writing involved in the offense. To gain a conviction, the prosecutor must prove that several elements of the crime were satisfied by the defendant’s conduct. This, and applicable penalties are discussed below.
The crime of forgery has several parts or “elements” that add up to convictable behavior. The prosecutor must present enough evidence to convince the jury (or judge if there is no jury) beyond a reasonable doubt that each of these elements has been satisfied.
The first element involves the defendant’s behavior with regard to a written instrument. Specifically, the action must create a document, or alter an existing document in a way that has (or would have) a significant effect on some legal right, relationship, or responsibility.
For example, if you forge your neighbor’s signature on a blank check that you find in the neighbor’s trash with the intent to steal money from your neighbor, you have taken an action to alter a written instrument (the check) in a way that would significantly effect your neighbor’s right to his own money. However, if you “forge” your spouse’s signature on a birthday card for your neighbor, the action has no real effect on anyone’s legal rights, and would not satisfy this element of the crime.
So you can see that some actions “count” and some don’t when it comes to the definition of forgery. Likewise, not all written instruments meet the definition, as discussed next.
To be included in the forgery definition, and to satisfy the second element in a forgery prosecution, written instruments must have two characteristics: they must be of legal significance, and be false.
The writing must have apparent legal significance. Government-issued documents like drivers' 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.
If the instrument is entirely valueless on its face and has no binding force or effect for any purpose of harm, liability, or injury to anyone (such as the birthday card in the example above), it cannot be the subject of a forgery. In contrast, the check in the example above does have legal significance because it is a legal document dealing with the check-holder’s financial rights.
The writing must be false. To be “false,” the written instrument 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. This quality of “falseness” comes from the fact that it was purposely altered to mislead the reader. By contrast, 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 someone (or some organization or government entity).
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 birth certificate and passport to apply for a state driver’s license is guilty of forgery before he even attempts to actually use them to defraud the state.
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.
Maryland punishes forgery and counterfeiting according to the type of document involved in the crime.
Making or knowingly using any of several specified forged financial or legal instruments incurs a fine of up to $1,000, up to ten years in prison, or both. These documents include any entry in an account book or ledger; and any letter of credit, bond, draft, check, or promissory note (or any endorsement or assignment of a bond, draft, check, or promissory note). They also include any deed, negotiable instrument, power of attorney, release or discharge for money or property, title to a motor vehicle, waiver or release of mechanics’ lien, will, or codicil.
Possessing a forgery of one of the abovementioned instruments with the intent to use it to defraud someone is also illegal, and incurs a fine of up to $1,000, up to three years in prison or both. Notice that this offense does not require the defendant to have personally created the forged instrument, but that the defendant knew it was false and possessed it with the intent to defraud someone. (Md. Ann. Code § 8-601 & 8-602.)
Making false entries in the public record of any state or local government agency or subdivision incurs its own penalties. This offense includes willfully making a false entry in a public record; or altering, defacing, destroying, removing, or concealing a public record. Penalties include a fine of up to $1,000, up to three years in prison or both. (Md. Ann. Code § 8-606.)
And forging the signature of a judge, court officer, or other state court employee incurs a fine of up to $10,000, up to five years in prison, or both. (Md. Ann. Code § 8-606.1.)
Some forgery crimes are handled in federal (rather than state) court. This happens when the offense involved federal documents (like a passport or social security card), when the defendant intended to defraud the federal government, or when the forged documents traveled over state lines and other similar circumstances. To read more about forgery in general, including federal forgery law, see Forgery Laws and Penalties.
A forgery conviction often leads to long prison terms and harsh fines, so it is wise to contact a local criminal defense attorney if you have been charged with forgery or a related crime, or if you have questions about how the laws described here apply to you. Only an experienced lawyer can give you legal advice and recommend the best course of legal action for your unique circumstances.