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California Forgery and Counterfeiting Laws

Forgery includes a number of activities related to the signing, altering, making, or using of a written instrument. The instrument may be handwritten, printed, typed, or otherwise recorded. For example, someone could commit forgery by signing another person's name to a document with legal effect, such as a check, will, or contract. Someone could also commit forgery by writing a new will and passing the document as the will of another person. According to California's forgery and counterfeiting laws, the individual must have acted with an intent to defraud the victim for personal or financial gain.

See Selling Fakes on Online for related information.

Overview of California Forgery and Counterfeiting Laws

The following chart gives a look at the elements of forgery and counterfeiting, as well as the penalties for these crimes:

Statutes California Penal Code Sections 470-483.5
Elements of Forgery

In a case of forgery, a prosecutor must establish three elements by:

  • Identifying a written instrument;
  • Showing that the defendant made the written instrument, materially altered an existing written instrument, or falsely signed a written instrument; and
  • Proving that the defendant acted with an intent to defraud.

The defense to forgery or counterfeiting charges is found where the accused lacked intent to defraud.


Counterfeiting describes the unlawful imitation or duplication of documents and other items with legal significance. Most commonly, counterfeiting refers to:

  • the imitation of paper money or coins, but the crime can also involve
  • checks,
  • tickets for public transit,
  • sports trading cards, and
  • a variety of other items.

As with forgery, the prosecutor must prove that defendant engaged in counterfeiting activities with an intent to defraud. In general, counterfeiting results in felony charges; however, California state law does permit a misdemeanor prosecution for the counterfeiting of specified items, such as transit tickets or sports trading cards.


The defendant's punishment depends on whether the state charged the defendant with a misdemeanor or a felony.

  • Forgery may result in a misdemeanor sentence of imprisonment in county jail for a term of up to one year.
  • However, California state laws also permit the state to consider felony sentencing of imprisonment for sixteen months, two years, or three years.
  • California punishes felony counterfeiting with a term of imprisonment lasting two to four years.

For either crime, the state may also consider the defendant's criminal record and any applicable aggravating factors to determine whether the defendant should serve the term of imprisonment in state prison instead of in county jail.

Note: State laws are always subject to change through the passage of new legislation, rulings in the higher courts (including federal decisions), ballot initiatives, and other means. While we strive to provide the most current information available, please consult an attorney or conduct your own legal research to verify the state law(s) you are researching.

Related Resources:

Charged With Forgery or Counterfeiting? An Attorney Can Help

Forgery and counterfeiting laws have a very wide range of potential consequences. A competent lawyer can help ensure that you mount the strongest defense possible and, in some instances, may be able to work out a plea deal with the prosecution. Get started today and reach out to a California defense attorney near you.

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