Hey lawyers, whaddaya know about forgery?

So here’s the story:

A friend of the family was arrested tonight after trying to pass a counterfeit $20 bill at a local casino (this is in the Tacoma area). He’s being charged with forgery. It’s totally bogus, he’s just not that kinda guy (owns his own successful commercial wiring business, homeowner, wife, 3 kids…), but one of his sons is a bit shady. Tonight, he and his wife decided to go gambling after he got off work, so he stopped off at the bank, grabbed 200 from the ATM, then went out to eat with his wife and the somewhat shady son (who’s around 20 or so), and paid for the meal using some of the cash. Then they hit the casino and when he tried to use a 20 in an automatic ticketing machine, it wouldn’t accept it, so he went to the counter, where they determined it was counterfeit and had him detained for trying to pass it. Next thing we know, we’re getting a call from his frantic wife, explaining he’s at the Sherrif’s office getting booked.

My question:

What’s the legal background on a situation like this? Are people expected to know when they might have received a counterfeit bill? Wouldn’t they have to prove that he knew he had a counterfeit bill? He’s certainly no counterfeiter. He can barely use a computer.

Does anybody have any info about this sorta thing. I feel horrible for the guy, and it makes me wonder is it that easy to end up in jail?

I think it’s probably pretty unusual for a private citizen to have counterfeit money obtained by innocent means. People just don’t give cash to other people that often, and ATMs don’t usually have it. So the cops probably have good reason to be very suspicious.

Has he actually been charged, though? With forgery?

Yeah, that’s the official charge.

My wife has worked in a bank before, and I asked her about the likelihood of counterfeit money making its way to the ATM and she said yeah, it could definitely happen, as sometimes, if the ATM was short, the manager would solicit the tellers for whatever money they had in their drawers from daily transactions. It would be given up without really being formally “checked” and used in ATM machines pretty regularly.

I get counterfeits now and again. It’s never been a big deal, I just hand it back and get a new one. When it happened to me at the McDonalds here in town, the person at the window just put the fake right back in the money tray, which I thought was hilarious.

How can you find out is a fake that easily? I assume these things are not made of news paper and actually are pretty good facimiles.

It seems like there are 2 or 3 versions of every small US bill in circulation now. I don’t handle a lot of cash so as long as the paper feels somewhat legit, I don’t think I’d have any idea if I had a fake.

I just checked my wallet - 3 $20 bills from an ATM a few weeks ago. 2 different styles. Do I possibly have $40 or $20 of forged money?

Very weird, maybe you’re not getting the whole story. I would expect them to have his prints on the offset press before they bring that charge.

As always, this is not legal advice. I am not licensed to practice in Washington (assuming that’s where your friend was arrested) and don’t know nearly enough facts from your post to give any advice. Your friend should get a lawyer licensed in his state who knows about criminal law. (That’s particularly true in this case – being charged with a crime is a serious thing. Your friend needs a lawyer, and he needs one right now. He can go with the public defender if he qualifies, or he can hire a private attorney, but either way he needs a lawyer ASAP.)

Counterfeiting currency (including possession and passing of counterfeit currency) is a crime in the federal system (Title 18 of the U.S. Code, section 472). However, to convict someone for counterfeiting, the government needs to prove that the defendant had “an intent to defraud.” If your friend didn’t know the bills were counterfeit, obviously he had no intent to defraud since he thought the bills were genuine and legal tender.

I assume that all states also have laws prohibiting counterfeiting. California certainly does (Cal. Penal Code section 470(d)), although again that statute requires proof of “intent to defraud.” I don’t know what the law is in Washington, but most crimes (and essentially all serious crimes) require some proof of knowledge, intent, or other evil state of mind, and certainly I would assume that for any forgery/counterfeiting offense you’d have to prove criminal intent (because possession or passing of forged or counterfeit items are, obviously, offenses that someone might unwittingly commit).

Of course, that’s all theory. The practical realities are often different, particularly once charges are filed – I’ve seen people who are innocent of any crime plead guilty to a lesser offense just to avoid the possibility of a more serious (wrongful) conviction. Even if you think you have a 90% chance of beating a counterfeiting case at trial, the consequences if you lose are so huge that many people aren’t willing to take the risk, if they’re given some less onerous way out. Your friend definitely needs a lawyer who can advise him of his options.

I’ll also just take a second to say that maybe charges haven’t been filed yet. There is a huge difference between being arrested for a certain offense and being charged with that offense. Arresting decisions are made by law enforcement officers, who are not laywers. Their decisions about what you’re arrested for are not official and not binding. A government lawyer (usually a District Attorney, in the state system) makes the official decision on what, if anything, you are charged with. It is very common for police to arrest someone for X, but for the DA to decide to charge that person with the lesser crime of Y or to charge them with nothing at all (ending the case). Hopefully that’s the situation for your friend, because it’s a lot easier to get a case dropped before charges are filed than after (once charges are filed, you have to convince the DA to give you a dismissal, which essentially means admitting they made a mistake. And they hate that.)

It’s really pretty easy once you know what to look for, even more so on the new designs. For older bills (pre-1990), look for red and blue fibers embedded in the paper and the quality of the microprinting. As the bills get newer, hold the bill up to the light and look for the thin verticle strip that has the denomination written on it (reading as “USA 100”, “USA 50”, “USA TWENTY”, “USA TEN”, or “USA FIVE”, sorry sawbucks get the shaft.) And the new bills have all the stuff as before, plus color changing ink, the watermark, and a bunch of other things to.

One more note about counterfeiting cases: I’ve only worked on one, and even that one I had very little to do with (I was a law clerk at the DA’s office and just handled the very preliminary proceedings). Obviously for counterfeiting the case usually comes down to intent. There’s rarely much dispute over (a) whether you had the bill and (b) whether the bill is genuine. The dispute is over whether you knew it wasn’t genuine. The DA will be looking for factors like:

  • Had more than one bill
  • Bill was a bad counterfeit (normal person would have noticed)
  • Bill had been refused before
  • Attempt to exchange for legitimate cash (often by buying a small item and paying with a large counterfeit bill, so you get lots of genuine cash as change)
  • Evidence that you are the counterfeiter (possession of inks, papers, dies, high-quality printers, etc. – which are often separate offenses)
  • Relevant criminal history and facts (whether you’re an addict, have prior forgery or counterfeiting convictions, etc.)

All of those things can be used to prove intent. Unlike in many cases, your prior convictions will almost always come in, because the DA will say (semi-truthfully) that he’s bringing them in not to show you’re a crook by nature, but to show absence of mistake (i.e., that you are lying when you say you didn’t know the bills were fake). You know the facts surrounding your friend’s case, so think about them with that stuff in mind.

Last one I got was pretty bad, a photo print on some wierd slimy paper all crumpled up to make it seem old. The colors were off, the details were smudgy, and it even had one of those felt pen marks, which leads me to think that it had been tested by someone before yet remained in circulation.

It’s fast food restaurants, I tell you. They do not give a shit, because the forged bill is less trouble than a customer at the window who can’t pay and who will not move on.

Untrue - it’s broadly circulated. Most bars in major cities find counterfeit bills almos daily.

I used to work a bar in London, and I’d see one every couple of days. British notes seem to me a bit harder to forge than U.S. ones, at least until U.S. ones started using same features (raised type, more colors, etc.)

Swiss notes are amazing. They have little printed metal reflective thingies on them.

Those felt pens that you see retail clerks use are utterly worthless.

I carry a UV LED keychain light to check for counterfeit bills. Shine it at the security strip.

Got my girlfriend a job at the Deli I worked at on the Upper East Side in Manhattan. She embarrassed me by accepting a fake 20 of the lowest fucking quality I had ever seen. It was a 1 dollar bill disguised as a 20. It was, without a doubt, the most ridiculous forgery I had every seen. The corners of an actual twenty had been cut off and glued to the corners of the one dollar bill. Somewhere in the world there is a twenty with all it’s fucking corners cut off. We broke up shortly afterward. Not because she accepted the 1 disguised as a 20, but that didn’t help.

Am I blissfully ignorant of widespread forgery of other currencies, or is the U.S. dollar the most easily forged currency in the world? Those stories of counterfeit notes showing up at every corner sound incredible.

Why don’t they work?

Christoph, I’m no expert, but I would speculate that much like Windows viruses, there are two things that drive US Dollar forgery:

  1. It’s valuable.
  2. There is momentum, in this case tradition, that prevents them from making the bills as secure as is possible.

Yes, it is. Anyone with a photocopier can dupe U.S. currency. Other countries use watermarks and color-shifting metallic ink.