It is illegal in Massachusetts to falsely makes, alter, use (or possess with intent to use) any of several specified documents with the intent to use it to injure or defraud someone. Called “forgery,” this crime and its penalties are discussed below.
In Massachusetts, 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 falsely made, altered, used (or possessed with intent to use) any of several specified documents with the intent to defraud or injure someone. These include any of the documents described in the next section.
(267 Ma. Gen. Laws Ann. § 1.)
The second element deals with the document involved in the offense. Writings that count for a forgery charge must have two characteristics: they must be of legal significance, and must be false. To satisfy this 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. In Massachusetts, these documents include any:
Other documents included here are:
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, the prosecution must prove that it was purposely altered to mislead the reader. A stock certificate, for example, with an accidental misspelling would not alone constitute forgery. In contrast, if a defendant created the certificate with a misspelling with the intent to defraud the certificate holder (or anyone, for that matter), then the defendant might be convicted of forgery. The later example meets all elements of the crime of forgery, whereas a mere mistake in a document does not.
Finally, in addition to the elements described above, the prosecutor must prove that the defendant took the action 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, in the stock certificate example from above, if the defendant alters the certificate with the intent to defraud the holder, but no harm ends up coming from this action, the defendant may still be convicted of forgery.
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 are the unwitting holder of the stock certificate described above, and you try to exchange it for cash only to find out that the certificate is a forgery, you would not be subject to forgery charges for the possession of the forged certificate because you had no intent to defraud anyone.
In Massachusetts, forgery incurs fines, jail or prison time, or both, according to the type of document involved in the crime, and according to the defendant’s action with regard to the document. For example, if you make, alter, use, or possess any of the documents listed in the first section under “A False Writing,” or any seal or stamp from a land court, you will face up to two years in jail (or up to ten years in prison). (267 Ma. Gen. Laws Ann. § § 1 & 3.)
In contrast, making, altering, using, or possessing a railroad-related document, or any of the admission papers or tickets listed above incurs a fine of up to $500, up to two years in jail (or up to three years in prison), or both. (267 Ma. Gen. Laws Ann. § 2.)
Creating or altering bank notes, traveler’s checks, and certain state-issued bills of credit (or other documents issued by the state treasury) incurs up to life in prison (or any lesser term at the judge’s discretion). (267 Ma. Gen. Laws Ann. § 7.) Using these forged documents with the intent to defraud—sometimes also called “uttering a false document”—or possessing them with the intent to defraud someone incurs a fine of up to $1,000 and up to a year in jail; or up to five years in prison. (267 Ma. Gen. Laws Ann. § § 10 & 12.)
It is also a crime to possess tools or instruments to accomplish forgery with the intent to use them for that purpose. This includes, for example, a plate to replicate a state-issued treasury bond. This crime also includes knowingly providing such tools or other materials to others (such as furnishing special paper for printing money) for the purpose of creating forged documents.
Possession of such an instrument with the intent to use it in forgery incurs a fine of up to $1,000 and up to two years in jail; or up to ten years in prison. (267 Ma. Gen. Laws Ann. § 13.)
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.