The specific statute of limitations applicable to check forgery (or check fraud) depends on the jurisdiction in which charges are being contemplated. Laws vary from state to state and at the federal level, so it’s crucial to know the facts of the specific case in order to understand the potential liability for the underlying crime.
In all jurisdictions (state and federal), forgery is a serious offense, but the specific statute of limitations applicable to check forgery (or check fraud) depends on the jurisdiction.
What Are Statutes of Limitation?
As with many felonies (except murder and other violent crimes), check forgery is subject to what’s called a “statute of limitations.” These statutes provide time periods during which the crime must be prosecuted or be forever time-barred. After the expiration of the statute of limitations, the accused can no longer be held criminally liable for the charge.
Generally, a statute of limitations is designed to ensure criminal convictions are supported by fresh, reliable evidence that hasn't been tainted by the passage of time. Memories fade, documents disappear and disintegrate, and situations change drastically. For these reasons, the criminal justice system insists that most criminal cases be tried fairly soon after the crime and criminal are discovered.
There are some legal prerequisites for a statute of limitations period to be deemed in effect. The alleged criminal must still be located in the state or jurisdiction where the crime was committed. Leaving the state will pause or "toll" the statutory period.
Additionally, the alleged defendant must not be living under an assumed identity. The reason for this is to prevent defendants from benefiting from additional criminal behavior. Otherwise, the defendant could adopt a false persona, "hide in plain sight" and wait out the statutory period, thus successfully avoiding prosecution by deception.
General Information About Check Forgery
In all jurisdictions (state and federal), forgery is a serious offense. It may be considered a felony if the amount in question is significant enough, or if the circumstances otherwise warrant a serious charge.
Check forgery is, or can be, a felony punishable by more than one year in prison in each of the 50 states. It will be considered a federal crime if the forged check is conveyed through the mail across state lines, or if the act of forging and negotiating (cashing) the check takes place in multiple states.
Statutes of Limitation for Check Forgery in State Law
Each state provides its own statute of limitations for various criminal offenses, including check fraud or check forgery.
For example, the Louisiana Code of Criminal Procedure provides two major statute of limitations for felony offenses, in Title XVII, Article 572 ("Limitation of prosecution of noncapital offenses"). Subsection (1) provides a statutory period of six years for felonies that carry a required "hard labor" punishment component, while subsection (2) provides a statutory period of four years for other felonies.
Because the crime of "monetary instru#ment abuse" provides that hard labor is not mandated upon conviction, the statute of limitations is four years in Louisiana.
Compare this to the statutory provisions in New York law. Felony forgery in the first degree includes forging of checks with the intent to defraud, under N.Y. Penal Law § 170.15. This is a Class C felony and provides for potential imprisonment of up to fifteen years. Lesser degrees carry lesser potential punishments.
This is important to understand because in New York as in other states, it’s the potential punishment that dictates the statute of limitations. Felony offenses in New York that are punishable by eight or more years in prison must be prosecuted within six years. Thus, forgery in the first degree is subject to the six-year statute of limitations, since it’s punishable by up to 15 years imprisonment.
In Massachusetts, whether the crime constitutes a misdemeanor or a felony depends on the amount in question, with amounts over the dollar figure prescribed by statute deemed a felony. Charges may be brought at any time within the six-year statute of limitations period.
In other state jurisdictions, the crime of check forgery or check fraud is subject to statutes of limitation periods ranging from two years to six years. In a few cases, there is no applicable statute of limitations, meaning that effectively these charges can be filed and prosecuted at any time in the defendant’s lifetime.
Federal Laws Against Check Fraud
If the check in question is a federal instrument, such as a check from the U.S. Treasury, the act of forging a signature on it constitutes a federal crime under 18 U.S. Code § 510. Additionally, the act of forging a signature on a check and then transmitting the check through the United States mail can also be prosecuted under federal law (as well as state law). Most federal felonies are subject to the five-year statute of limitations. Exceptions include crimes punishable by death, terrorism and certain federal sexual assault charges.