Forgery—creating, altering, or using a false document with the intent to defraud or injure someone—is a crime in Virginia. The sections below explain how this offense can be committed, and how it is punished.
In Virginia, a person is guilty of forgery if, with intent to defraud, the person creates, alters, or knowingly tries to use any false public record or certificate, banknote or coin, or another document that affects someone’s legal rights.
Regardless of which circumstance or type of document exists in a forgery case, the prosecutor must prove several elements (or parts) of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt in order to gain a conviction. These elements are described next.
To satisfy the first element of forgery, the prosecutor must show that the defendant took some action with regard to one of the kinds of documents listed above. As mentioned above, these actions include making, altering, or using any of these documents with the intent to defraud someone.
Examples of these actions include creating a false deed of sale, altering a birth certificate, or presenting a will in probate that you know has been forged (even if you are not the person who falsely created or altered it), with the intent to defraud someone.
The second element requires that the document involved be false and of legal significance. These characteristics are described next.
The document must have apparent legal significance. In order to be punishable as forgery, the document must affect legal rights and obligations. For example, a will has legal significance because it affects the legal rights of the person who made the will and his heirs. In contrast, a birthday card for your neighbor to which you sign your husband's name is unlikely to create or change any legal rights or responsibilities between anyone and would usually not count as a document of legal significance.
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. For example, if you alter your birth certificate so that it looks like you were born under a different name, with the intent to fraudulently apply for a driver’s license under that false name, the certificate would be considered a false writing. In contrast, a document with a simple error in it is not a false document (perhaps your birth certificate has an accidental typo in your mother’s maiden name). To be false, the document must have purposely been altered to mislead the reader.
Finally, the prosecutor must prove that the defendant took one of the actions described above with the specific purpose of defrauding someone. Note that it is the intent to defraud, not the success of the scheme, that matters for a conviction. Therefore, from the example from above, it is the action of falsifying your birth certificate with the intent to defraud that constitutes forgery, even if you are caught before you can use the forged birth certificate to actually acquire the false ID.
This element protects people from criminal liability if they possess or sign fraudulent documents without knowing they are false. For example, if you buy a house and 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.
(Va. Code §§ 18.2-168, -170, -172 (2020).)
Virginia punishes forgery according to the kind of document involved in the offense.
Class 4 felony penalties apply when:
A person convicted of a Class 4 felony faces a fine of up to $100,000, at least two (and up to ten) years in prison, or both.
Forging all other writings, including falsely obtaining someone’s signature for the purpose of defrauding that or another person, constitutes a Class 5 felony. The law defines a Class 5 felony as a wobbler offense, meaning it can be punished as a misdemeanor (up to one year in jail and a $2,500 fine) or as a felony (one to 10 years in prison) in the discretion of the judge or jury.
(Va. Code §§ 18.2-10, -168, -169, -171, -172 (2020).)
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 offense 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.
Talk to a local criminal defense lawyer if you have been charged with forgery or a related offense, or if you have questions about how state law applies to your situation. A qualified attorney can help you determine the best course of action for your case.