Many people use checks to pay for goods or services. Sometimes, because of their busy lives, they might forget to fill out one portion or another of the check and hand it to you to deposit. Merely possessing the incomplete instrument isn't itself illegal. However, if you plan on completing the dollar amount, name of the payee, or any other part of it to defraud someone, you could be charged with an offense.
Possessing a Counterfeit Check
California Penal Code 475 PC prohibits you from having in your possession an unfinished check with the intent to fill it in yourself and use it. The purpose behind presenting the item must have been to defraud another person or entity. To defraud someone means to trick or deceive them, usually to obtain something beneficial for oneself or cause damage to others.
The law states that it doesn't matter if the check you had in your possession was real or fake, completing it with fraudulent intentions is illegal.
Under the counterfeit items law, if you received a blank check from someone else and entered a dollar amount without their permission, that's referred to as forgery. However, if you let the person know that they accidentally forgot to write in an amount, you're not breaking any laws even though you had a blank check in your possession.
California Penal Code 475 PC also forbids other conduct related to defrauding others with checks or other financial instruments, such as notes, bank bills, money orders, or traveler's checks.
According to the law, it is illegal to:
- Knowingly give or try to give a person or entity a forged or altered item
- Provide a person or entity with a completed instrument, whether real or fake, to deceive them
Under California law, any of the actions listed above are considered forgery.
Committing Check Fraud
In some situations, possessing a blank check could be considered check fraud. This occurs when you have an instrument that is alleged to be from a financial institution, but it's really not.
You could be charged under California Penal Code 476 PC when you:
- Make, provide, or possess a fake or altered bill, note, or check,
- Say that the instrument is from a real or fake financial institution,
- With the intent to defraud another person
As with California Penal Code 475 PC, if you commit check fraud, you could be guilty of forgery.
Penalties for a Forgery Conviction
In California, forgery is a wobbler offense. That means it can be charged as either a felony or a misdemeanor. The level of offense you could be charged with depends on the specifics of your circumstances.
The conviction penalties for forgery are as follows:
- Misdemeanor: Incarceration for up to 1 year
- Felony: Imprisonment for 16 months, 2 years, or 3 years