Identity theft is the act of obtaining personal information and using it for an unlawful purpose. This crime can take many forms, from obtaining credit cards in the name of another person to avoiding an arrest for outstanding warrants. Identity theft can occur online or happen in person. While state prosecutors are not shy about taking on an identity theft charge, federal law also prohibits identity theft.
Whether you are facing state or federal charges, it is important that you discuss your options with experienced legal counsel. An attorney can advise you of your rights and answer any questions you have regarding the charges you face.
Identity theft is a serious crime that carries significant penalties. However, an arrest for identity theft does not guarantee a conviction. Your attorney could work to reduce the charges you face or press the court to dismiss your case entirely. To speak with an attorney that will provide the vigorous defense you deserve, contact the Sigal Law Group right away.
State and Federal Identify Theft Charges
The elements and potential penalties of an identity theft conviction differ significantly between state and federal law. However, both charges are serious and can have life-long consequences upon a conviction.
State Identity Theft Laws
In California, identity theft crimes are governed by California Penal Code 530.5. Under the statute, identity theft is any unlawful use of another person's identifying information to obtain or attempt to obtain:
- Property, or
- Medical information.
Identity theft is a crime of intent, meaning a prosecutor must show you willfully obtained this information for an unlawful purpose. This element is important, in that it could provide a powerful defense in some cases. Willful conduct does not mean you started out with the intention to defraud someone, but at some point you made the willing decision to do so.
In addition to the elements of identity theft described above, California state law breaks down identity theft into three addition acts. Committing any one of the four acts highlighted in the statute could result in a conviction. They include:
- Obtaining another person's personal identifying information with intent to commit fraud.
- Selling, giving, or transferring another person's personal identifying information without consent with the intent to commit fraud.
- Selling, giving, or transferring another person's personal identifying information knowing it will be used for fraud.
Federal Identity Theft Laws
Identity theft under federal law is governed by Section 1028 of Title 18 of the U.S. Code. A federal charge of identity theft is very similar to those under California law. Generally speaking, federal law outlaws the same conduct as the state statute. However, the federal statute is broader in a few important ways. In addition to the acts that are unlawful under the state statute, the federal statute also bans knowingly:
- Presenting another person's I.D. as your own,
- Transferring a stolen I.D., and
- Producing, transporting, or trafficking in the equipment used to produce fake I.D.s.
The penalties associated with a federal identity theft conviction are steep. The maximum sentence can also vary, depending on other factors. In addition to large fines, a conviction for identity theft carries a maximum of:
- 15 years in prison for producing or transporting fraudulent documents
- 5 years for using fraudulent documents
- 20 years when used to facilitate a drug crime
- 30 years when used to facilitate an act of terrorism
Examples of Identity Theft under California Law
Identity theft laws are intentionally broad. This is done to ensure that a willful act of identity theft does not go unpunished due to a technicality. While there are countless ways to violate the statute outlawing identity theft, below are some common examples:
Example 1: Willful Theft
You receive an unsolicited e-mail from a stranger that was intended for someone else. Inside the e-mail is the account information and password for that person's bank account. You did nothing to seek out this e-mail, but upon receiving it, you used the information to access the account and transfer the balance to your own account. Because you willfully used another person's identifying information to unlawfully obtain money, you could be found guilty under state law.
Example 2: Mortgage Fraud
Despite your strong desire to own a home, you lack the credit score to get financing. Knowing that your brother-in-law has excellent credit, you obtain his social security number from your sister and sign his name as a co-signor on your loan. By obtaining credit through the unlawful use of a social security number, you have committed identity theft.
Example 3: Avoiding Arrest
Law enforcement has discovered the mortgage fraud described above and has issued a warrant for your arrest. However, at the time you stole your brother-in-law's social security number you also nabbed his driver's license. When you are pulled over while driving, you introduce yourself to the officer as your brother-in-law and hand him the stolen license. By avoiding arrest using stolen identifying information, you are guilty of identity theft.
Common Defenses at Trial
While it can be challenging to prevail at trial on an identity theft charge, the right defense attorney could help you obtain the most favorable result possible. Some common defenses used in identity theft cases include:
- That you lacked an unlawful purpose.
- That you were mistaken for the real perpetrator.
- That the police violated your constitutional rights when they searched your home.
- That you operate an interactive computer service or software provider.
Contact a California Identity Theft Lawyer Right Away
A prosecution for identity theft often heavily relies on documents. From I.D. cards to mortgage paperwork, most of these cases are built on a paper trail. Your attorney can carefully review this evidence to ensure that it was not tampered with and that it shows the conduct alleged by the police.
If you have been arrested for identity theft in Los Angeles, contact the Sigal Law Group right away to ensure that your civil liberties are protected throughout the course of your case.