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The law against forgery is designed to protect society from the deceitful creation or alteration of writings on whose authenticity people depend in their important affairs. A person who, with the purpose of deceiving or injuring, makes or alters a writing in such a way as to convey a false impression concerning its authenticity is guilty of forgery in its contemporary sense.


The law of forgery may have originated with an early Roman law (c. 80 B.C.) that prohibited falsification of documents describing the passing on of land to heirs. The precise scope of what was considered forgery at common law is not universally agreed upon, but a statute passed in the time of Queen Elizabeth I (An Act against forgers of false deeds and writings, 5 Eliz. 1, c. 14 (1562) (England)) prohibited forgery of publicly recorded, officially sealed documents with the intent to affect the title to land, as well as the knowing use of such documents as evidence in court. In the first major expansion of the law's coverage, a 1726 decision declared that a false endorsement on an unsealed private document was indictable both under the Elizabethan statute and at common law (Rex v. Ward, 92 Eng. Rep. 451 (K.B. 1726)). Writing only half a century later, William Blackstone was able to declare, after referring to several contemporary statutes, that "there is now hardly a case possible to be conceived wherein forgery, that tends to defraud, whether in the name of a real or fictitious person, is not made a capital crime" (*250). Blackstone defined common law forgery, which he also called crimen falsi, as "the fraudulent making or altering of a writing to the prejudice of another man's right." Pillory, fines, and imprisonment were the penalties in those rare cases that were not subject to capital punishment (*247).

American law of forgery

As with their English antecedents, early American prohibitions of forgery focused more on the types of documents covered than on clarifying the definition of the crime itself. As a result, a rather technical body of case law developed. The most important effort to simplify and rationalize the law was the American Law Institute's Model Penal Code of 1962, variations of which were gradually adopted by the states. However, the principal federal forgery statute, which prohibits false making, forgery, or alteration of any writing for the purpose of obtaining or receiving any sum of money from the United States government, has remained virtually unchanged since its enactment (An Act for the punishment of frauds committed on the government of the United States, ch. 38, 3 Stat. 771 (1823)). This law, codified under 18 U.S.C. § 495 (1999), contains no definition of its central term, forges, and has been authoritatively interpreted by the United States Supreme Court to cover only that conduct which was understood as forgery in 1823 (Gilbert v. United States, 370 U.S. 650 (1962)). The definition of forgery applied in a state prosecution is determined by the statutes of that state and by start-court interpretation of those laws.

Interpretative issues. The problems of interpretation in forgery prosecutions may be grouped around the three key elements of the common law offense: false making, writing, and intent to defraud.

Although a few jurisdictions have held to the contrary, the notion of false making in forgery generally refers only to a document's authenticity and not to the veracity of any factual assertions within it. A written statement may be full of lies and used to cheat, but this does not make it a forgery; on the other hand, an otherwise legitimate deed on which the date of filing has been altered, or the name of one person has been signed by another without permission, is a forgery. Similarly, a document with a genuine signature that has been procured by fraud or trickery is generally not considered a forgery, although a few jurisdictions have held that it is.

In the absence of a contrary statute, a writing is not considered forged unless it might deceive a person of ordinary observation or prudence. Moreover, unless the legislature has prescribed otherwise, the writing must have some apparent legal efficacy in terms of private or public rights; if it is completely innocuous or void on its face, it cannot be a forgery. For example, a check that requires two signatures but has only one cannot be a forgery, even if the one signature which appears is false. In addition, because only writings are covered, the fraudulent simulation of valuable objects, as in art forgery, is nor within the traditional definition.

In forgery, the mens rea (culpable state of mind) is generally an intent to defraud, meaning a purpose to deceive or cheat another person or entity out of his or its legal due. There is no requirement that the intent involve a potential advantage to the forger, or that the fraudulent intention be successfully achieved.

Defenses and evidence. There are three principal defenses to charges of forgery. First, a person may have, or believe he has, the authority to sign another's name; or an alteration may be intended to correct what is genuinely believed to be an error in a document. In either event, there would be no intent to defraud, and probably no false making. Second, even if the document is clearly forged, the prosecution may not be able to prove by legally admissible evidence that the accused is the person who forged it. Finally in a surprising number of cases, it is difficult to prove that the writing is not genuine. For example, the true payee often has a motive to deny receiving and cashing a check, so that a duplicate may be issued.

The testimony of a layperson is admissible evidence to identify handwriting with which he is familiar. However, where the issue is either the identity of the forger or the genuineness of the document, an expert questioned-document examiner will often have to make comparisons between the writing at issue and known exemplars of the handwriting of both the accused and the true payee. The techniques of scientific analysis sometimes do not provide a satisfactory answer, and the prosecution consequently fails.

Related offenses

The knowing use of forged writings has been prohibited as a separate offense at least since "uttering or publishing as true" certain forged writings was made a capital crime in 1729 (An Act for the more effectual preventing and further Punishment of Forgery, Perjury, and Subornation of Perjury, 2 Geo. 2, C. 25 (1729) (Great Britain) (repealed)). Under modern statutes, uttering is usually covered in the section dealing with forgery and carries the same maximum penalty as forgery itself. Mere possession of a forged instrument is generally not a crime until an attempt is made to use ("utter or publish") it. However, under federal law it is an offense knowingly and with fraudulent intent to transport a forged traveler's check or "security" (defined to include a check) in interstate commerce (18 U.S.C. § 2314 (1999)).

One who achieves a dishonest financial advantage by the use of a forged instrument may also be convicted of fraud, false pretenses, or theft by deception. But passing a worthless check, even when accompanied by misrepresentations or intent to defraud, is regarded only as a species of theft or false pretenses, not as uttering or forgery, so long as the checking account and signature are genuine. However, if the account does not exist or if the drawee bank or maker is fictitious, several states' laws treat the passing of the check as a separate offense or even as a form of forgery. Finally, it has often been pointed out that only a restrictive definition of writing permits any distinction to be drawn between forgery and counterfeiting.

The future of forgery laws

The highly influential Model Penal Code recommended that the technical restrictions on forgery laws be abolished and that both uttering and counterfeiting be consolidated with forgery (Model Penal Code, 1962, § 224.1; 1960, commentary on § 224.1). The Code defined forgery with specificity and included unauthorized alteration of a writing. It also included the making, completing, executing, authenticating, issuing, or transferring of a writing that misrepresents its time, place, or sequence of execution, or its authority, or that purports to be a copy of which there was no genuine original. Writing was defined broadly to include all forms of recording information, money, credit cards, trademarks, and "other symbols of value, right, privilege, or identification." The "purpose to defraud or injure anyone" was retained as an element. The offense would be graded: forgery of money, scamps, and other instruments issued by the government or representing interests in property would be a serious felony; forgery of a will, deed, contract, or other writing having legal efficacy would be a less serious felony; and any other type of forgery would be a misdemeanor. In a separate provision, the Code recommended punishing as a misdemeanor the fraudulent simulation of objects, such as art forgery, which creates a false appearance of "value because of antiquity, rarity, source, or authorship" (1962. § 224.2). The United States National Commission on Reform of Federal Criminal Laws made a similar set of recommendations in 1971 (§ 1751).

By 1980, at least twenty-three states had followed this lead in whole or in substantial part (Model Penal Code, 1980, commentary on § 224.1). Although some jurisdictions will undoubtedly retain a distinction between forgery and counterfeiting, more are likely to adopt the Model Penal Code's approach.

Peter Goldberger

Dan M. Kahan

See also Counterfeiting.


American Law Institute. Model Penal Code and Commentaries: Official Draft and Revised Comments, vol. 2. Philadelphia: ALI, 1980.

. Model Penal Code: Proposed Official Draft. Philadelphia: ALI. 1962.

. Model Penal Code: Tentative Draft No. 11. Philadelphia: ALI. 1960.

Baker, Jay Newton. Law of Disputed and Forged Documents: Cases, Illustrations. Charlottesville, Va.: Michie Co., 1995.

Blackstone, William. Commentaries on the Laws of England (17651769), vol. 4. Reprint. University of Chicago Press, 1979.

U.S. National Commission on Reform of Federal Criminal Laws. Final Report. Washington, D.C.: The Commission, 1971.

. Working Papers. vol. 2. Washington, D.C.: The Commission, 1970.

Wharton, Francis. A Treatise on the Criminal Law of the UnitedStates. 2d ed. Philadelphia: James Kay, Jr. & Brother, 1852.

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The creation of a false written document or alteration of a genuine one, with the intent to defraud.

Forgery consists of filling in blanks on a document containing a genuine signature, or materially altering or erasing an existing instrument. An underlying intent to defraud, based on knowledge of the false nature of the instrument, must accompany the act. Instruments of forgery may include bills of exchange, bills of lading, promissory notes, checks, bonds, receipts, orders for money or goods, mortgages, discharges of mortgages, deeds, public records, account books, and certain kinds of tickets or passes for transportation or events. Statutes define forgery as a felony. Punishment generally consists of a fine or imprisonment, or both. Methods of forgery include handwriting, printing, engraving, and typewriting. The related crime of uttering a forged document occurs when an inauthentic writing is intentionally offered as genuine. Some modern statutes include this crime with forgery.

Perhaps the most famous case of forgery in the twentieth century took place in 1983 with the "discovery" of the Hitler diaries. The diaries supposedly contained passages written by German dictator adolf hitler between 1932 and 1945. Gerd Heidemann, a German reporter for Stern magazine, had claimed the writings as genuine and sold them. He had obtained them from Konrad Kujau, a Stuttgart dealer in military memorabilia and documents. The magazines Newsweek and Paris Match, along with other media, paid more than $5 million for the documents. Major news sources around the world quickly published major stories detailing the historical information that the diaries allegedly contained. Investigative experts from around the world later conducted forensic examinations on the diaries and found the documents to be fake. Kujau then admitted forging the diaries, and news sources immediately retracted their coverage. Both Kujau and Heidemann were sentenced to four and a half years in a German prison—but not before Kujau embarrassed the media even further by forging Hitler autographs for spectators at his circuslike trial.

In the United States, the Mormon Bible forgeries resulted in more extreme consequences. Beginning in the early 1980s, Mark Hofmann, a disillusioned Salt Lake City Mormon and part-time dealer in historical documents, forged documents of major importance to Mormon history. He sold most of the creations to the mormon church and to others interested in Mormon religious history. Hofmann reaped hundreds of thousands of dollars from his fraud. His boldest forgery, the White Salamander letter, cast doubt on the credibility of the Mormon Church's founder, Joseph Smith. In this letter, Hofmann portrayed Smith as a dabbler in folk magic and the occult, which greatly distressed the Mormon community. When individuals within Hofmann's ring of buyers raised doubts about the authenticity of one of his later creations, Hofmann murdered one buyer and the spouse of another before their suspicions became public.

Hofmann was charged with murder and fraud. Prosecutors relied on expert testimony regarding the authenticity of the documents. When the experts declared that the documents were worthless, Hofmann's attorneys offered to plea bargain on the counts of forgery and second-degree murder. The prosecution agreed to negotiate the charges to avoid an embarrassing trial for the Mormon Church. Hofmann pleaded guilty to murder. In January 1988, the Utah Board of Pardons sentenced Hofmann to life in prison without parole.

Most forgeries are less sensational than those in the Hitler diaries and Mormon Bible cases. Common forgery usually involves manufacturing or tampering with documents for economic gain. The intent to defraud remains essential.

Counterfeiting, often associated with forgery, is a separate category of fraud involving the manufacture, alteration, or distribution of a product that is of lesser value than the genuine product.

further readings

Bowman, Frank O., III. 2001. "The 2001 Federal Economic Crime Sentencing Reforms: An Analysis and Legislative History." Indiana Law Review 35 (winter): 5–101.

Bozeman, Pat. 1990. Forged Documents. New Castle, Del.: Oak Knoll Books.

Brayer, Ruth. 2000. Detecting Forgery in Fraud Investigations: The Insider's Guide. Alexandria, Va.: ASIS International.

Nickell, Joe. 1996. Detecting Forgery: Forensic Investigation of Documents. Lexington, Ky.: Univ. Press of Kentucky.

Perez, Jacob. 1992. Forgery and Fraud-Related Offenses in Six States, 1983–1988. Justice Department. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Rendell, Kenneth W. 1994. Forging History. Norman, Okla., and London: Univ. of Oklahoma Press.

Treasury Department. U.S. Secret Service. 1991. Counterfeiting and Forgery. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.

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forgery (in criminal law)

forgery, in criminal law, willful fabrication or alteration of a written document with the intent to injure the interests of another in a fraudulent manner. The crime may be committed even though the fraudulent scheme fails. The forgery of government obligations—e.g., money, bonds, postage stamps—constitutes the separate offense of counterfeiting. Typical examples of forgery are making insertions or alterations in otherwise valid documents and appending another's signature to a document without permission. It is, of course, lawful to sign another's signature as his attorney or representative so long as there is no plan to commit fraud. Most instances of forgery occur in connection with instruments for the payment of money. The crime may also concern documents of title, e.g., deeds, or public documents, including birth and marriage certificates. In the United States forgery ordinarily is a state crime; but to send forged documents through the post office may constitute the federal crime of mail fraud.

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