Elements of the Offense

Forgery is committed in Washington, D.C. when a person (1) makes, draws, or utters (2) a forged written instrument (3) with intent to defraud or injure another.

To “utter” means to “issue, authenticate, transfer, publish, sell, deliver, transmit, present, display, use, or certify.”  Or more simply, as Black’s Law Dictionary suggests, it involves putting the instrument into circulation in some manner.

A “written instrument” includes a check, stamp, letter of credit, piece of money, stock certificate, money order or traveler’s check.  In a sense, it can be any document that has monetary value or affects legal relations between two parties.  D.C. courts have held, for example, that a falsified time sheet falls within the definition.  The injured party in this case was the company who paid an employee for work he did not do.

So defined, the offense of forgery covers a broad range of different activities.  It can include drawing up a false check.  It can include signing a fictitious name to that check.  And it can include presenting the check to a bank for payment.  (A person committing all three acts could be convicted of three different counts – or acts – of the offense.)  Forgery could also include using a stolen credit card at an ATM;  falsifying pedigree papers in order to charge more for a pet; or using counterfeit bills to pay for groceries.

The third element – “intent to defraud or injure another” – provides the criminal intent (or “mens rea”) required to make out the offense.  While a judge or jury cannot read the defendant’s mind, the prosecution can make out this element of the crime through circumstantial evidence.   D.C. Code 22-3241.


There are three different penalty levels for forgery depending on the nature of the “written instrument” that is forged or uttered.  If the instrument is money, a commercial paper (e.g., bond or check), a legal document (e.g., deed or will), or any document worth $10,000 or more, the penalty is a maximum fine of $10,000 and/or imprisonment for up to 10 years.

If the instrument is a prescription or a token, fare card or other article manufactured for use as a symbol for value in place of money or any written instrument having a value of $250 or more, the penalty is a maximum fine of $5,000  and/or imprisonment for up to 5 years.

Otherwise, the penalty for forgery is a maximum fine of $2,500 and/or imprisonment for up to 3 years.   D.C. Code 22-3242.