Forgery is illegal in Michigan, and occurs when a defendant creates, uses, or possesses a false document with the intent to use it to defraud someone. This crime and its penalties are discussed below.
Forgery may involve one of many kinds of documents, and happen under a number of circumstances. However, all forgery cases have the following elements in common, all 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 either created a false document, altered an existing document, or knowingly used (or possessed with the intent to use) a false document with the intent to defraud someone or some organization.
Examples include creating a false ID or driver’s license, altering a will to include yourself as a heir, and presenting a knowingly forged certificate of title to illegally gain possession of someone’s house.
The second element requires that the offense involved one of many kinds of documents (also called “instruments” or “writings”) that are included under the legal definition of forgery in Michigan. Among many specified types of documents, these public records (including documents that you would file with a county clerk, like a marriage license or certain land transaction documents), deeds and mortgage documents, and financial and legal documents (such as a promissory notes or a will).
All writings that “count” for a forgery charge have two common characteristics: they must be of legal significance, and must be false. The prosecutor must show that the document involved in the offense meets both of these requirements.
The writing must have apparent legal significance. While a legal or government-issued document counts for this requirement, the key is the legal significance; because of this, the category is broader than legal documents themselves, and includes any document that affects legal rights and obligations.
A recommendation letter for a job or college application is an examples of this kind of writing. In contrast, a non-legally significant writing might include a birthday card for your friend, in which you sign both your and your spouse's name; or the note you leave for the babysitter to remind her when the kids should go to bed, in which you sign your husband'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.
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, the prosecutor must prove that the defendant satisfied the two elements described with the specific purpose of defrauding someone (or some organization).
Note that it is the intent rather than the success of the fraud that counts. In other words, this element is satisfied if you had the required mind set (to defraud someone); your scheme does not have to have been a success for you to be convicted of forgery. So, for example, if you created a false will for your brother that named you as the sole heir, but you were caught out before you could actually wrongfully inherit anything, you have still committed forgery even though you haven’t managed to actually defraud your brother’s estate.
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.
Forgery is a felony, which incurs at least one year in prison, and depending on the type of document involved in the crime, may incur up to seven or 14 years in prison.
For example, forging a public record (including documents handled, for example, by notary publics, county clerks, or registrars of deeds) incurs up to 14 years in prison. (Mi. Comp. Laws Ann. § 750-248.)This includes crimes of “uttering” a false record, which means trying to use or present the document as true when you know it is a forgery (even if you are not the person who forged the document). (Mi. Comp. Laws Ann. § 750-249.)
In contrast, forging a bank note, other documents issued by a bank or financial institution, and similar writings incurs at least one year (and up to seven years) in prison. (Mi. Comp. Laws Ann. § 750-251.)
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, or 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.