Understanding Texas’ New Forgery Laws
The Texas legislature recently amended the state’s forgery laws. The main effect of these amendments is to create a “sliding scale” of penalties in cases where a person is accused of using a forged instrument to unlawfully acquire property or services from another. Specifically, the sliding scale is tied to the value of the property or service involved. Under prior Texas law, this was not a relevant consideration in forgery cases.
Legislature Creates “Sliding Scale” Based on Value of Offense
The new law does not actually alter the definition of forgery in Texas. Under Section 32.21 of the Penal Code, forgery is any act to “alter, make, complete, execute, or authenticate any writing” such that it “purports” to be the act of another person who did not give their consent. In other words, if you sign someone else’s name to a check and then attempt to cash that “writing,” you have committed forgery. But forgery can also involve altering a check that was originally valid, say by changing the dollar amount.
Forgery also is not limited to checks and financial instruments. Any symbol of “value, right, privilege, or identification” may be forged under Section 32.21. For instance, forgery often occurs with respect to estate planning documents, such as a wills and powers of attorney. Indeed, these types of forgeries can be especially problematic, as a forged power of attorney could give the forger complete control over the victim’s assets.
Under the prior Section 32.21, forgery was by default a Class A misdemeanor–an offense punishable by up to one year in jail and a $4,000 fine. But there are several “enhancements” built into the law. Most of the cases described above–i.e., forging a check or will–were classified as an automatic state jail felony, punishable by up to 2 years in jail and a $10,000 fine. Forgery involving money, securities, postage, or other government records is a third-degree felony. And any forgery offense against an “elderly individual” was automatically bumped up one level–e.g., forging a 70-year-old woman’s signature on a check would be prosecuted as a third-degree felony rather than the normal state jail felony.
The newly amended Section 32.21, which took effect on September 1, preserves the old classification and penalty scheme but then adds an additional layer. If the prosecution can prove that the alleged forger “engaged in the conduct to obtain or attempt to obtain a property or service,” then the offense level will depend on the value of that property or service. The new scale will work as follows:
- For property and services worth less than $100, forgery is a Class C misdemeanor;
- For property and services worth at least $100 but less than $750, forgery is a Class B misdemeanor;
- For property and services worth at least $750 but less than $2,500, forgery is a Class A misdemeanor;
- For property and services worth at least $2,500 but less than $30,000, forgery is a state jail felony;
- For property and services worth at least $30,000 but less than $150,000, forgery is a third-degree felony;
- For property and services worth at least $150,000 but less than $300,000, forgery is a second-degree felony;
- For property and services worth $300,000 or more, forgery is a first-degree felony.
Could the New Laws Reduce Potential Sentences for Some Forgery Defendants?
In some cases, the amended forgery laws could result in less harsh penalties for defendants than the previous law. Consider this recent case from Eastland, Texas. The defendant here was found guilty of two counts of forgery under the prior Section 32.21. Specifically, he separately forged and cashed two checks–a state jail felony under the old classification system–each with a face value of about $900. The judge sentenced the defendant to a total of 2 years in jail. The 11th District Court of Appeals upheld both the sentence and conviction.
Under the new Section 32.21, each of these forgery offenses would be prosecuted as Class A misdemeanors, since they involved checks worth more than $750 but less than $2,500. Although the maximum jail time for each count is one year it is conceivable, if not probable, that the defendant in the case above would have received a lesser sentence for the two misdemeanors versus the single felony.
Of course, it remains to be seen exactly how Texas prosecutors will enforce the revised forgery laws going forward. (Forgery crimes allegedly committed prior to September 1 will still be prosecuted under the prior Section 32.21.) And even if you are only facing a misdemeanor forgery charge, you need to take any criminal allegation seriously. There are cases where prosecutors mistakenly charge forgery when the defendant possessed a document he legitimately believed was authentic.
Whatever your situation, if the state thinks you have committed a crime, you need to speak with an experienced Houston criminal defense attorney right away. Contact the Law Offices of Tad Nelson & Associates if you need immediate legal assistance.
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