Under the California Business and Professions Code, it is unlawful to alter or forge a prescription. The Los Angeles Prosecution Department takes this offense very seriously, probably due to the increasing awareness of how addictive prescription medication can be. This means that you risk facing harsh penalties if you’ve been charged with the criminal offense of forging or altering a prescription.
The LA Criminal Defense Law Firm has in-depth experience helping individuals who’ve been charged with a white collar crime and win their cases. Contact us today if you are facing criminal charges for forging or altering a prescription. We will assist you in building a robust defense strategy.
This article will cover everything you should know about the criminal offense of forging or altering a prescription. We will explain what the law says about it, what the prosecution must prove, possible penalties, and how you can defend yourself.
The Legal Meaning of Forging or Altering a Prescription
According to the California Business and Professions Code 4324, it is a crime to forge or alter a prescription. If, for instance, you misrepresent yourself as a doctor to a pharmacist, steal a prescription pad, forge a doctor’s signature, or alter the quantity of a drug on a prescription, the California Department of Prosecution may charge you under the Business and Professions Code 4324. Specifically, this Code prohibits:
- Signing someone else's name, whether fictitious or real, to a prescription
- Falsely making, altering, forging, uttering, publishing, passing as genuine, or attempting to pass as genuine a prescription
- Possessing any drugs obtained by a forged prescription
Most people confuse between the Business and Professions Code 4324 and the Health and Safety Code 11368. The Health and Safety Code highlights that it is illegal to forge or alter a narcotic drug prescription. The main distinction between these two statutes is that the Health and Safety Code prohibits explicitly altering or forging a prescription for narcotic drugs. On the other hand, the Business and Professions Code forbids forging or altering a prescription for common drugs.
This criminal offense is deemed to be a wobbler. The prosecutor may charge it as either a felony or a misdemeanor, depending on his/her discretion.
How does the Prosecutor decide whether to Charge the Crime as a Felony or a Misdemeanor?
Remember, the offense of forging or altering a prescription is classified as a wobbler. The prosecutor can decide to charge it as either a misdemeanor or a felony.
Choosing between a misdemeanor or a felony largely depends on the prosecutor’s discretion. The state of California does not have any law dictating how the prosecutor should choose between these two.
However, the California District Attorneys Association (CDAA) recommends that prosecutors should consider the following factors when choosing to charge an offense as either a felony or a misdemeanor:
- The strength of the prosecution case
- The severity of the criminal offense
- Whether the defendant cooperated with law enforcement
- Whether the defendant qualifies for probation
- The defendant’s age
- The defendant’s criminal record
- The possibility of the defendant’s continued criminal conduct
Sometimes, the prosecution can charge you with forging or altering a prescription as a felony to coerce you to accept a plea bargain. If you are in this situation, you should hire an experienced criminal defense attorney who will protect your legal rights.
If you’ve been charged with forging or altering a prescription as a felony, your attorney can have it reduced to a misdemeanor. Misdemeanors carry less severe penalties than felonies. Moreover, it is much easier to seal a misdemeanor conviction in comparison to a conviction for a felony.
What the Prosecution Must Prove
To be convicted under the California Business and Professions Code 4324, the prosecution must prove the following elements:
- You forged or altered a prescription
- You knew that you forged or altered a prescription
- You had the intent to defraud
In California criminal cases, the standard of proof is on the prosecution, and the burden of proof is beyond a reasonable doubt. Below, we discuss each of these elements comprehensively:
1. You Forged or Altered a Prescription
The prosecution must have sufficient evidence to show that you forged or altered a prescription. It may claim that:
- You signed someone else’s name to a prescription
- You submitted a forged prescription to a pharmacist
- You passed or attempted to pass as genuine a false prescription
- You altered a doctor’s prescription
- You possessed drugs secured by a forged prescription
- You uttered a false prescription
As per the California Business and Professions Code, a 'prescription' is an order given for a drug by phone, in writing, or via electronic transmission, for example, a facsimile. The prosecution must prove that the prescription contained:
- The patient’s name
- The date of issue
- The name and quantity of the prescribed drug
- The name, physical address, and phone number of the doctor
- The doctor’s signature
If the prosecution alleges that you altered a prescription, it must prove that the prescription contained the elements we have listed above. Additionally, the prosecution must illustrate that you obliterated some prescription parts, such as changing the prescribed drug's quantity and forging the doctor's signature.
Note that you will still be charged under the California Business and Professions Code even if your attempts to use or pass as genuine a false prescription were not successful. Moreover, you can be charged under BP 4324 if you possess medications secured by a fraudulent prescription.
2. You knew that you Forged or Altered a Prescription
The prosecution must have evidence to show that you knew that you forged or altered a prescription. You will not be convicted if, for instance, you did not know that you possessed drugs secured by a false prescription.
Knowledge is a crucial element that the prosecution must prove to be convicted under the California Business and Professions Code. This means that you can base your entire defense strategy on the fact that you didn’t know you were involved with a false prescription to win your case.
3. You had an Intent to Defraud
The prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that you had the intent to defraud. It must illustrate that you intended to acquire medications via a false prescription.
Typically, prosecutors in Los Angeles use the fact that the defendants are addicted to the prescription drug in question to show that they had the intent to defraud. This is due to the general perception that drug addicts tend to use whatever means possible to satisfy their cravings.
The prosecutor does not need to show that your attempt to defraud was successful. The jury may find you guilty as long as the prosecutor proves that you had the intent to defraud.
Can you be charged with Forging or Altering a Prescription under Federal Law?
Yes, you can be charged with the offense of forging or altering a prescription under federal law. In fact, you can be charged both under State law and Federal law. If you are in this situation, you will face more grievous penalties upon conviction.
According to the Federal Controlled Substances Act 21 USC 843, it is unlawful to obtain a controlled substance by subterfuge, misrepresentation, fraud, deception, or forgery. You will most likely be charged under Federal law if:
- You are a pharmacist or a doctor, and you forged numerous drug prescription records
- You trafficked huge amounts of drugs secured by forged or false prescriptions
A violation of 21 USC 843 is considered to be a felony. Upon conviction, you will have to serve a Federal prison sentence of a maximum of four years. The punishment for a subsequent violation of 21 USC 843 is a Federal prison sentence of up to eight years, which may be together with a fine of up to $250,000.
The Penalties for Forging or Altering a Prescription
Remember, the criminal offense of forging or altering a prescription is a wobbler. This means that it can be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on the prosecutor’s discretion.
If the prosecutor charges it as a misdemeanor, you will face the following penalties upon conviction:
- A jail term of up to one year
- A fine not exceeding $1,000
On the other hand, if it is charged as a felony, you risk facing the following penalties when convicted:
- State imprisonment of up to three years
- A fine of up to $10,000
Are there any Alternative Sentencing Options to Forging or Altering a Prescription?
Yes, there are certain alternative sentencing options to forging or altering a prescription. The most common ones include probation and drug diversion programs.
Attorneys who do not have extensive criminal law experience may not know that these alternative sentencing options exist. Even if they know about them, most of them do not have the technical know-how to convince the judge to agree to them.
If you have a history of drug addiction, your attorney can convince the judge to subject you to a drug diversion program. Your charges may be dismissed after you’ve completed the program.
Depending on your case's facts and circumstances, the judge may place you on probation instead of imprisonment. The probation period may be up to five years. During this period, you will have to abide by certain conditions, such as:
- Enrolling in a drug counseling program
- Performing community service
- Submitting to random drug testing
- Submitting to random and warrantless police searches of your home and car
- Making periodic reports to the probation officer
There are two types of probation: formal and informal. You would be placed under formal probation if you were charged with the offense of forging or altering a prescription as a felony. On the other hand, you will be placed under informal probation if the prosecutor charges you with forging or altering a prescription as a misdemeanor. Formal probation has more strict conditions, in comparison to informal probation. The primary advantage of probation is that you will be able to avoid jail time, and it will be much easier for you to have the criminal record sealed in the future.
How to Fight Your Charges
There are numerous possible defenses that you can use to fight criminal charges for forging or altering a prescription. Some of the most common ones include:
- Illegal search
- Mistake of facts
- No intent to defraud
- Lack of knowledge
- You did not sign the prescription
Let us discuss each of these defenses briefly:
1. Illegal Search
Most LA residents do not know that it is illegal for the police to search without a warrant. Most of them are subjected continuously to routine searches in their cars and houses. If, for instance, the police uncover a forged prescription in one of these searches, you can be charged under the California Business and Professions Code.
If you are in this situation, your lawyer can request the judge to schedule a suppression hearing. California courts do not admit illegally acquired evidence. In the suppression hearing, the court will exclude the police's evidence during the illegal search. For example, if the police found the forged prescription during the search, the judge will exclude it. Its absence as evidence will weaken the prosecutor’s case, and he/she will have no choice but to drop your charges.
2. Mistake of Facts
Depending on your case's specific facts, you can argue that there was a mistake of facts. For instance, you can claim that:
- You weren’t the one who called the pharmacist
- The pharmacist did not interpret the prescription correctly
- You are not the official recipient of the prescription
The investigating officer may mistakenly believe that you forged or altered a prescription under certain circumstances. Therefore, if you have an alternative explanation, you can use it to build your defense strategy.
3. No Intent to Defraud
Remember, the prosecutor must show that you had the intent to defraud. You will win your case if you show that you had no such intention.
Note that the prosecutor must reach the standard of beyond reasonable doubt when proving that you had the intent to defraud. In most cases, Los Angeles prosecutors find it hard to attain this standard. Even if they have enough evidence, your attorney can challenge its credibility. As a result, you will be acquitted.
4. Lack of Knowledge
The prosecutor must demonstrate that you knew the prescription was forged or altered. This means that you can defend yourself by arguing that you did not know that the prescription was false.
Your attorney can convince the court that it is someone else, and not you, who had forged the prescription. He/she can also convince the jury that you believed that the prescription was genuine.
This defense applies to health care providers who have been charged under the California Business and Professions Code. These providers can argue that they had the authority to write or alter the prescription due to their medical expertise.
If you choose this defense, you may be required to produce expert witnesses who will testify in your favor. These expert witnesses must illustrate that you had to alter the prescription. You will also be required to adduce evidence showing that you are a certified medical practitioner.
6. You did not Sign the Prescription
This is the most common California legal defense to BP 4324 charges. Typically, defendants who falsify prescriptions forget to alter the signature part.
As per the California Business and Professions Code, a prescription must be signed. You could not be convicted under BP 4324 if the prescription was not signed. Furthermore, the jury will not convict you if the prescription was not signed in your name or that of the person who forged it.
The pharmacist may have made an error when interpreting the prescription. Or, the doctor may have mistakenly prescribed for you the wrong medications or dosage.
If you intend to use this defense, it would be best to get the prescriber or the pharmacist to admit to their mistakes. This way, the prosecutor will have no other option but to drop your charges.
Commonly Charged Related Offenses
Three offenses are related to forging or altering a prescription. These criminal offenses include:
- HS 11368 – Forging or altering a narcotic drug prescription
- HS 11350 – Possessing a controlled substance
- HS 11173 – Prescription fraud/doctor shopping
Depending on what you exactly did, the Los Angeles Prosecution Department can charge these offenses together with or alongside BP 4324. Below, we discuss each of these offenses briefly:
1. HS 11368 – Forging or Altering a Prescription a Narcotic Drug Prescription
California Health and Safety Code 11368 is more specific than the Business and Professions Code 4324. According to HS 11368, it is unlawful to:
- Alter or forge a narcotic drug prescription
- Utter or issue an altered prescription
- Obtain or possess a narcotic drug secured by a forged, fictitious, or altered prescription
- Utter or issue a prescription bearing a fictitious or forged signature
Just like BP 4324, HS 11368 is deemed to be a wobbler. If the prosecutor charges it as a misdemeanor, its potential punishments include a county jail sentence of 6 – 12 months and a fine of up to $1,000. If convicted of it as a felony, the judge may punish you with state imprisonment for up to three years or, he/she may order you to pay a fine of a maximum of $10,000.
2. HS 11350 – Possessing a Controlled Substance
According to the California Health and Safety Code 11350, it is unlawful to possess a prescription drug or a narcotic drug without a valid prescription. A prosecutor can charge this offense alongside, or instead of, forging or altering a prescription if the police found you in possession of a drug secured by a forged prescription. The punishment for possessing a controlled substance is a county jail term of up to one year together with a fine not exceeding $1,000 or probation.
Note that HS 11350 specifically prohibits the possession of many common narcotic and street drugs, including:
- Narcotic painkillers, for example, Vicodin and Oxycontin
In the past, Los Angeles prosecutors used to charge HS 11350 as a felony. But nowadays, possessing a controlled substance is usually charged as a misdemeanor due to the changes brought about by Proposition 47. Therefore, if you were previously convicted of possessing a controlled substance as a felony, you can apply for resentencing so that the judge can reduce your penalties.
3. HS 11173 – Prescription Fraud/Doctor Shopping
According to HS 11173, it is unlawful to obtain or attempt to obtain a controlled substance by:
- False statements in a report or prescription
- Affixing a forged or false label to a package containing controlled substances
- Pretending to be a medical professional
- Concealment of a material fact
One of the most common violations of HS 11173 is prescription fraud. Prescription fraud is also known as doctor shopping. It is when a person uses more than one health care provider to obtain multiple prescriptions, with each medical professional being not aware of the other.
Just like BP 4324, HS 11173 is deemed to be a wobbler. If the prosecutor charges it as a misdemeanor, you risk facing jail time of a maximum of one year and a fine not exceeding $1,000 upon conviction. Upon conviction for felony prescription fraud, you will face state imprisonment for 16 months, two years, or three years, or maybe forced to part with up to $10,000 in fines.
Find a Criminal Defense Lawyer Near Me
Contact The LA Criminal Defense Law Firm for professional legal help if you’ve been charged with forging or altering a prescription in Los Angeles. We will help you build a robust defense strategy.
We are committed to helping you obtain the most favorable outcome. We understand how stressful it is to face criminal charges, and this is why we are here to help you win your case and move on with your life. Call us right away at 310-935-1675 for a no-obligation consultation. We are available 24/7.