White collar crimes like forgery are often prosecuted as misdemeanor offenses, which carry one year or less of jail time. But if a defendant has a prior criminal record, the prosecution may seek to “enhance” the misdemeanor charge into a felony. This means that even a fairly simple crime like check forging may land a person behind bars for many years.
Texarkana Court Finds 17-Year Sentence Illegal
At the same time, prosecutors still need to prove a defendant’s guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt” on all elements of the charged offense and ensure that any enhancements are within the bounds of the law. For instance, a Texas appeals court recently held that a trial court improperly sentenced a Texarkana-area man to 17 years in prison for check forgery. Although the underlying offenses were Class B misdemeanors, the sentence reflected that of a second-degree felony.
Here is what happened. A man passed away in 2018. His daughter took charge of his estate and, among other actions, closed his bank account. A few weeks later, the defendant in this case–who apparently had no relationship with the decedent–cashed three checks at two different convenience stores, ostensibly written by the decedent from his now-closed bank account.
When the decedent’s daughter learned of the forged checks, she notified the police. Prosecutors subsequently charged the defendant with three counts of “forgery of a financial instrument” valued between $100 and $750, each of which is a Class B misdemeanor. The maximum penalty for each count was 180 days in jail and a $2,000 fine.
However, the jury was told the defendant was charged with three state-jail felonies. And because the defendant had a prior criminal record, those state-jail felonies were enhanced such that the judge sentenced the defendant for three second-degree felonies, where the maximum penalty is 20 years in prison.
On appeal, the defendant argued his sentence was improper. The Court of Appeals agreed. The error here was that the prosecution believed the defendant was indicted for forgery of a “check,” which is a state jail felony under the Texas Penal Code. But the defendant’s indictment actually charged him under a different section of the Code, which refers to a defendant obtaining “property”–in this case, money–thru forgery. The appeals court said this section of the Code therefore controlled, not the provision specifically referring to checks. And since the defendant was only guilty of three Class B misdemeanors, even with the enhancements he could not be sentenced to 17 years in prison.
Speak with a Houston White Collar Crimes Defense Lawyer Today
In any criminal case, a defendant should not be facing a greater sentence than what is allowed by law. Even those defendants who have a pre-existing criminal record should not “have the book thrown at them” when the law does not call for it. So if you have been charged with a white collar offense and need representation from a qualified criminal defense attorney, contact the Law Offices of Tad Nelson & Associates in Houston, Galveston or League City today. Call (281) 280-0100.