Prescription drugs come in handy when treating ailments. Generally, authorized medical professionals are the only people permitted to prescribe drugs and most medications that pharmacists sell require prescriptions. In California, stringent regulations govern the practice of prescribing drugs.
These strict laws are set to combat drug abuse and addiction to prescription drugs. The statutes prohibit possessing medications without valid prescriptions, intending to traffic, distribute, or use them. Additionally, if you acquire drugs through a false or forged prescription, you’ll face criminal charges.
Expert legal advice and guidance are crucial when facing these kinds of charges so that your defense strategy is successful. At Los Angeles Criminal Lawyer, one of the practice areas we specialize in is defending against white-collar crimes, forging/altering a drug prescription included. We strive to provide our clients with reliable legal representation and guidance.
Our experienced criminal defense lawyers are result-oriented, ensuring to preserve our clients’ best interests. Call us any time you have a case, and we will help you in the best way possible. We serve clients facing charges in Los Angeles, CA, and the neighboring counties.
The Criminal Conduct of Forging/Altering a Prescription Defined
In California State, it is illegal to forge, falsely alter, make, publish, utter, pass as authentic, or try passing as authentic a drug prescription. It is also against the law to sign another individual’s name ( fictitious/actual) on a prescription for medication or possess drugs acquired with an altered or forged prescription. Doing so will subject you to criminal charges under the Business and Professions Code (BP) 4324.
Examples of instances that could subject you to prosecution under BP 4324 include:
- Stealing your physician’s prescription pad and writing a Fentanyl prescription for your mother, then signing the physician’s name
- Calling a pharmacy pausing as a physician to order a Vicodin prescription for yourself
- After your doctor writes you a ten-tablet OxyContin prescription, you add another zero to ten so that the prescription reads 100 tablets.
Forging and Altering Defined
It’s against the law to forge someone else’s signature on a drug prescription. Medical doctors are the commonly known people who prescribe medication. However, physician’s assistants, nurse practitioners, and veterinarians can also do so. Forging the names of any of these professionals to be given medications is equally illegal.
Altering means changing a lawfully issued prescription, usually the quantity of the prescribed medication. You alter by adding to, erasing, or changing a part of it to affect a legal, property, or financial right. Pharmacists usually become suspicious whenever a prescription permits for a higher than the usual number of refills or if it contains a remarkably high quantity. Usually, they call the prescriber to confirm whether the number of refills or quantity indicated is genuine.
Some defendants change the medication type or add a drug to the prescription, for example, altering Tylenol II to Tylenol IV.
Prosecutors have various ways of proving that you forged someone else’s signature. They could subpoena a witness who saw you falsify the signature to testify. They could also have a handwriting expert examine your previous writings with the alleged forged signature then compare the two. Therefore, when accused of this offense, you want an attorney who can challenge the handwriting expert and witness’s testimony by your side.
Under this law, to qualify as a drug prescription, it needs to be an instruction for a medication or drug that might be issued by facsimile, phone call, or writing. A prescription should contain the following information:
- The patient’s name
- Drug name
- Medication’s quantity
- Date of issue
- Directions/instructions for use
- Name, phone number, address of prescriber or doctor
- Prescriber’s signature
Defining a Drug
Per BP 4324, a drug includes veterinary and prescription drugs and medication that could be acquired without a prescription.
Under this law, utter carries a wider definition compared to its day-to-day usage. You utter a drug prescription falsely if you use a changed/forged drug prescription and represent, via your words/conduct, that it’s authentic.
Consider this case scenario. Your doctor prescribes you Vicodin after you complained of spraining your wrist. She approves two refills, but you change the ‘two’ to ‘eight.’ When the druggist sees the prescription, she notes that that’s too much drug for a wrist sprain. You innocently agree with her and shrugs. Here, you may be guilty of a BP 4324 violation for uttering a drug prescription falsely.
Keep in mind that if you knowingly write a drug prescription for someone you’re aware is addicted to them, and they are not medically commended, or that person has been requesting numerous prescriptions, you may be guilty of BP 4324 violation. Nonetheless, this case could be challenging for the prosecuting attorney to prove unless there’s adequate evidence to show you knew, for example, that the person usually sells the drugs while you have been reaping from the sales. In the absence of this proof, prescribing excessive pain medications is not uncommon for doctors and other healthcare providers, and it’s not an offense.
Punishment for Violating BP 4324
Forging/altering a prescription is prosecuted as a wobbler crime per California law. This means the prosecuting attorney can press either misdemeanor charges or felony charges based on your criminal record and the specific facts surrounding your case.
If charged with a misdemeanor, you’ll face a fine not exceeding one thousand dollars and a maximum jail sentence of one year upon conviction. And if found guilty of a felony, you’ll face a fine not exceeding $10,000 and a state prison sentence of 16 months, three or two years. Alternatively, the court could suspend your jail or prison term and sentence you to summary probation, also called informal or misdemeanor probation or felony probation, also called formal probation.
Should you be sentenced to probation, you are likely to serve no or little jail time. But you’ll serve the probation sentence for some years, generally three, but it could sometimes go up to five years. During this time, you’ll be asked to adhere to various conditions, including:
- Warrantless searches of your property or person
- Drug testing
- Drug counseling
- Community labor or service, for instance, Caltrans roadside maintenance
- Payment of fine
- The condition that you don’t violate other statutes
If it is felony probation, you’ll also meet regularly (usually once every month) with the probation officer.
Should you violate the probation conditions, the judge could cancel your probation sentence then impose a prison/jail term.
A pre-trial diversion is an option you can consider before going to trial, so the judge doesn’t make a judgment for the charge you are facing. There are two types of diversion programs, namely misdemeanor diversion and mental health programs. Misdemeanor diversion involves drug diversion programs. Therefore, if facing misdemeanor charges of BP 4324 violation, you could pursue enrollment into drug diversion.
If you’re a first-time offender, the program will help you be acquitted of the charges you’re facing and avoid punishment by completing a drug rehab course and probation. This means that your lawyer can negotiate for you to undergo rehab programs before the judgment of your case in court. Once you complete the rehab program, the court might dismiss the case against you.
Before 2018, for you to request to undergo any of the diversion programs, you needed to first enter a guilty plea for the charge against you. This meant that judgment would be made, and in case you don’t complete the rehabilitation program assigned to you, the deferred punishment would be restored. But after this law was amended in 2018, you can apply for diversion programs without entering a guilty plea. After completing the program, you can request for your record to be sealed.
Legal Defenses to BP 4324 Violation
Defending against criminal charges under BP 4324 is usually fact-specific. That is, it depends precisely on what the accusations against you are. Examples of the fact-specific defenses your attorney can argue to have you acquitted of these charges include but aren’t limited to:
You Weren’t Aware the Drug Prescription Was Forged/Altered
You have a valid defense if you can prove you weren’t aware the prescription you used was forged. Your charges could also be dismissed if the prosecuting attorney can’t demonstrate that you knew the prescription you presented was forged. It could be that your friend sent you to the pharmacy with a forged or altered prescription. However, if you’ve been convicted of a similar action in the past, or it was apparent that you should have known that what you did was against the law, the defense might not be hard to argue.
You Didn’t Utilize Forged Prescription
If the charges against you are for using a changed/forged drug prescription, you can apply this defense and demonstrate that the forged/altered prescription wasn’t presented anywhere. But note that you might still face charges for forging/altering a drug prescription despite not using it.
You Didn’t Forge or Alter the Prescription
You would have a valid defense if you did not forge or alter the prescription in question in any way. Perhaps someone falsely accused you of doing so, or it was a case of mistaken identity.
You Weren’t Aware You Didn’t Have the Legal Authorization to Sign
When arguing this defense, your lawyer must demonstrate that you didn’t know you didn’t have the legal power to sign the prescription in question. The lawyer can present proof of any past prescriptions you legally signed to show you weren’t aware you weren’t authorized to sign.
You Had the Legal Power to Sign
The judge can’t find you guilty of violating BP 4324 on the grounds of signing the prescription when you had the legal power to sign. It could be that you are a doctor’s assistant, and the physician permitted you to sign the prescription they had written for their patient, thus authorizing you fully. If this was the case, this defense could help have your charges dismissed.
You Never Signed the Prescription
The burden is upon the prosecuting attorney to demonstrate that you did sign the prescription. If you have evidence showing that there’s no way you could’ve signed that prescription, you can have your charges dropped.
Proving to the Court That You Are Addicted to Prescription Medication by Presenting Medical Testimony
If you have an addiction to prescription medication, you can persuade the judge to grant you probation instead of a prison/jail sentence. A medical report by your doctor may be necessary to prove you’re indeed addicted. If the judge allows probation, you’ll be ordered to enroll in a mandatory drug counseling program and undergo rehabilitation. You’ll also have random warrantless searches. Violating these conditions would result in your probation being canceled and full penalties for your crime reinstated.
Alternatively, you may have altered/forged the prescription, but you were discovered only due to an unlawful search and seizure. If this is the case, your lawyer will bring a motion per PC 1538 to suppress the acquired evidence. If the judge grants the motion, any proof obtained during the Unlawful search would be omitted from the case. The prosecuting attorney might agree to a probation sentence rather than a jail term. Or, they might even dismiss the case against you.
Related Offenses to BP 4324 Violation
Related crimes refer to offenses that can be prosecuted instead of or alongside altering/forging a prescription because they share various elements. They include:
The Federal Substances Controlled Act – 21 USC 843
21 USC 843(a)(3) criminalizes acquiring or obtaining possession of any controlled substance through misrepresentation, forgery, fraud, scam, or deception. This law is often used to penalize individuals who traffic, in significant quantities, drugs acquired through forged prescriptions and pharmacists or physicians who falsify a substantial number of prescription medication records. Violating the Federal Substances Controlled Act is a federal felony. If it’s your first offense, you’ll face a federal prison sentence that does not exceed four years. If found guilty of a subsequent crime, your punishment will be a fine that doesn’t exceed two hundred and fifty thousand dollars and a federal prison sentence that doesn’t exceed eight years.
Health & Safety Code (HSC) 11368 – Altering of Forging a Narcotic Drug Prescription
HSC 11368 is more specific compared to BP 4324. This law criminalizes:
- Forging or altering a narcotic drug (like opiates) prescription,
- Issuing or uttering a changed prescription,
- Issuing or uttering a prescription that has a fictitious or forged signature, or
- Obtaining or possessing a narcotic drug through any forged, altered, or fictitious prescription
HSC 11368 is prosecuted as a wobbler crime. If you face misdemeanor charges, you will face a fine not exceeding one thousand dollars and up to a year in jail upon conviction. And if facing felony charges, your punishment upon conviction will include up to one thousand dollars in fines and three or two years, or 16 months in state prison.
HSC 11173 –Doctor Shopping or Prescription Fraud
HSC 11173 illegalizes obtaining or trying to obtain any controlled substance by:
- Concealing material facts,
- A false statement in the prescription,
- Pausing as a healthcare provider, or
- Attaching a forged/false label on a package with controlled substances.
A common HSC 11173 violation is doctor shopping. Doctor shopping happens when an individual uses two or several pharmacies and providers to issue numerous controlled substance prescriptions, with one not aware of the others. This is also commonly called prescription fraud. If you violate HSC 11173, you’ll face misdemeanor or felony charges. A misdemeanor is punished by a fine that doesn’t exceed one thousand dollars and a maximum of one year in jail. If convicted of a felony, you will be subject to up to ten thousand dollars in fines, three or two years, or 16 months in state prison.
HSC 11350 Controlled Substance Possession
HSC 1350 makes it an offense to possess prescription or illicit drugs with no legal prescription. According to HSC 11350, you’re subject to misdemeanor charges if you illegally have several common narcotic and street drug prescriptions, including narcotics, painkillers like Vicodin and Oxycontin, peyote, mescaline, cocaine, and heroin, or other opiates. Possessing these substances will subject you to one thousand dollars or more in fines and a maximum jail sentence of a year or probation with compulsory community service.
Previously, possessing a controlled substance was considered a felony. However, it was lowered to a misdemeanor with the enactment of Prop. 47. Suppose you were sentenced for committing a felony offense in the past. In this case, you likely qualify now to be re-sentenced to a misdemeanor due to Prop. 47.
Contact a Skilled Criminal Lawyer Near Me
If you’ve been arrested for or charged with forging/altering a prescription, you want to speak with a skilled criminal defense lawyer as soon as possible. At Los Angeles Criminal Lawyer, our attorneys have several years of experience helping clients fight off these charges. We apply an aggressive defense and will do everything in our power to help you achieve the best possible outcome for your case. With offices situated in Los Angeles and the neighboring counties, there’s always an expert lawyer available to help you regardless of where you work or live. Contact us now at 310-502-1314 for a free consultation.