“False impersonation” (also known as “false personation”) is a crime in California.1
Under California Penal Code 529 PC, you commit the crime of false impersonation when you:
- Falsely personate someone (that is, pretend to be them) in their public or private capacity; and
- Perform any other act that might cause the person you are impersonating to become liable to a lawsuit or prosecution or become obligated to pay money, or which might cause you to get some benefit from impersonating him/her.2
Here are some examples of people who might be charged with false personation under PC 529:
- A drunk woman is confronted on the street by a police officer. When asked her name, she gives him the name of a co-worker. She then struggles with the officer, engaging in behavior that can lead to charges of resisting arrest.
- A man steals his cousin's utility bill and uses it to open a library card in his cousin's name. He then uses this card to borrow a bunch of books he does not intend to return.
- After her husband is arrested, a woman goes to a bail bond company, pretends to be her mother, and secures bail for her husband by signing her mother's name.
If false impersonation is charged as a misdemeanor, it is punishable by a fine of up to ten thousand dollars ($10,000), and/or up to one (1) year in county jail.4
Felony false personation carries a potential fine of up to ten thousand dollars ($10,000), and a potential sentence of sixteen (16) months, two (2) years or three (3) years (which in most cases will be served in county jail under California's realignment program).5
If you find yourself facing false impersonation charges in California, a skilled criminal defense attorney can help you determine the best legal defenses for your case.
Depending on the nature of the allegations, these might include:
- You did not commit an “additional act” as required under Penal Code 529 PC;
- Your act didn't create any liability or benefits; and/or
- You were falsely accused or mistakenly identified.
In order to help you better understand California Penal Code 529 false personation, our California criminal defense attorneys will address the following:
If, after reading this article, you would like more information, we invite you to contact us at Shouse Law Group.
The legal definition of the California crime of false personation consists of two basic “elements of the crime.” These are:
- You falsely personated someone else in their public or private capacity; and
- In doing so, you performed an additional act that created some kind of liability for that person, or some sort of benefit for yourself.6
Falsely personated someone else
You falsely personate/impersonate someone else when you falsely represent yourself as another person, for the purpose of deceiving someone.7
Example: Leo is an Elvis Presley impersonator. Every so often he dresses up in his Elvis costume and goes to a local bar's open mic night, where he performs Elvis's hit songs.
Elvis is dead, and Leo does not impersonate him for the purpose of deceiving anyone into actually thinking he is Elvis. So what he is doing does not meet the legal definition of false impersonation.
Performed an additional act
One of the key aspects of the legal definition of false impersonation is that you must perform another act in addition to the act of impersonating the other person.8
This act must be something more than just identifying yourself as the other person, or presenting evidence that claims to show that you are him/her.9
Example: Jose has an outstanding arrest warrant. When a car he is riding in is stopped by police, and they ask his name, he gives them the name of his brother Tony instead.
Jose has been carrying around Tony's birth certificate in case this exact situation arises. When the police officers ask for ID, he shows them the birth certificate. But he soon changes his mind about the ruse and admits his true identity to the police.
Jose is not guilty of Penal Code 529 PC false impersonation because he did not perform an “additional act” as required by that law. Just showing a birth certificate to support the claim that he was Tony did not count as an additional act.10
Example: Patrick is caught stealing a car and arrested. At booking, he gives the officers the name of his brother Matthew.
Patrick signs Matthew's name on the booking and release forms when he is released on his own recognizance. When Patrick does not show up at his next scheduled hearing, police arrest Matthew on charges of grand theft auto.
Patrick is guilty of false impersonation. He committed the required “additional act” when he signed Matthew's name on the booking and release forms, creating serious legal liability for Matthew.11
That creates liability for the other person or a benefit for yourself
The “additional act” that is part of the crime of false personation must either:
- Create a legal or financial liability for the person you are impersonating; or
- Create some kind of benefit for you.12
Under Penal Code 529 PC, this requirement is met if you:
- Serve as a bail or surety before a court or officer in the name of the person you are impersonating; or
- Verify, publish, acknowledge or prove a written instrument in that person's name.13
But of course there are many other ways you can meet this requirement as well.
Example: Mary is pulled over on suspicion of California DUI. Instead of her own name, she gives the officer the name and birthdate of her cousin Amber.
The officer wants Mary to submit to a blood alcohol test, but she refuses.
Mary is guilty of false impersonation. The “additional act” is her refusal to take the blood alcohol test. This act could have caused Amber to face legal liability for both DUI and chemical test refusal.14
California false impersonation is what is known as a “wobbler.” This means that the prosecutor may choose to charge California Penal Code 529 as either a misdemeanor or a felony.15
A prosecutor will typically base this decision on:
- The precise nature of the allegations; and
- The defendant's criminal history.
False personation as a misdemeanor carries the following potential penalties:
- Misdemeanor (summary) probation;
- Up to one (1) year in county jail; and/or
- A fine of up to ten thousand dollars ($10,000).16
And the potential penalties for felony false impersonation are:
- Felony (formal) probation;
- Sixteen (16) months, two (2) years or three (3) years in jail; and/or
- A fine of up to ten thousand dollars ($10,000).17
In addition, if you are convicted of California Penal Code 529 false personation as a felony, you will not be able to own firearms under California's “felon with a firearm” laws.18
If you are charged with false personation in California, an experienced fraud crimes defense attorney can help. S/he can advise you on whether any of the following legal defenses could help your case:
You didn't commit an additional act
As we discussed above, the requirement that the defendant commit an additional act—beyond falsely identifying himself as another person—is one of the most important elements of PC 529.
The additional act needs to be truly distinct from the act of identifying yourself as someone else. For example, it does not count as an additional act if you:
- Give a false middle name or birthdate to go along with your false identity;19 or
- Show a birth certificate or other ID for the person you are impersonating.20
Your act didn't create any liability or benefits
Not only must you commit an additional act to be guilty of false personation—that additional act must either:
- Create a liability (legal or financial) for the person you are personating; or
- Create an undue benefit for you.21
According to Palm Springs criminal defense attorney Michael Scafiddi22:
“Things can get tricky with the liability/benefit element of the crime of false impersonation. Maybe you impersonated someone as a joke, or to impress someone else. No harm was done to the person you impersonated, but still you get reported to the police. The question of whether you received any actual or potential benefit from the impersonation can then become key to whether or not you are guilty under California Penal Code 529.”
You were falsely accused or mistakenly identified
Outright innocence is, of course, one of the best legal defenses.
If you and your criminal defense attorneys can gather firm evidence either that someone falsely accused you of false impersonation—or that you are the victim of mistaken identity—then the charges against you should be dismissed.
Maybe you caught someone else falsely impersonating another person and threatened to report him/her. But before you could do so, s/he went ahead and reported you as the culprit.
Or maybe someone with whom you had a personal relationship has been the victim of false impersonation—and accuses you either in error or as an act of revenge or resentment.
There are any number of scenarios in which someone could be falsely accused of false personation—and our criminal defense attorneys have experience with many of these.
If you are charged with Penal Code 529 PC false impersonation, you should be aware of the following related offenses:
California Penal Code 148.9 PC makes it a crime to falsely identify yourself to a law enforcement officer.23
The major differences between Penal Code 529 false impersonation and Penal Code 148.9 falsely identifying yourself to a peace officer are:
- Penal Code 148.9 requires you to falsely identify yourself as someone else to a peace officer who is lawfully detaining or arresting you;
- Penal Code 148.9 does not require an additional act; and
- Penal Code 148.9 is a misdemeanor in all cases—not a wobbler.24
Because of this, many defendants charged with Penal Code 529 false personation will try to get their charges reduced to Penal Code 148.9 false identification to an officer.
This is potentially an option for you if the false impersonation allegations involve identification of yourself to a police officer, and there is doubt as to whether you performed an “additional act.”
Theft by false pretenses occurs when you convince someone to give you their property through either a lie or a false promise.26
If you convince someone to give you something of value by falsely impersonating another person, you could be charged with both theft by false pretenses and false personation.
If the property taken is worth nine hundred fifty dollars ($950) or more, then theft by false pretenses is a wobbler, carrying similar penalties to false impersonation.27
California “identity theft” laws, Penal Code 530.5 PC, make it a crime to take someone else's personal identifying information and use it in an unlawful or fraudulent manner.28
If you falsely impersonate someone with the help of their personal identifying information (date of birth, social security number, bank account info, etc.), you may be charged with both false personation and identity theft.
Identity theft is another wobbler and is punishable by the same penalties as false impersonation.29
Impersonating a peace officer is a separate crime under Penal Code 538d PC.30
The crime of impersonating a police officer consists of using a police uniform, badge, insignia, certificate, etc., to try to fraudulently convince someone else that you are a peace or other law enforcement officer. It does not matter whether you succeed in convincing someone you are an officer--or whether you gain any benefit from doing so.
Impersonating a peace/police officer is a misdemeanor.31
Call us for help…
For questions about the crime of Penal Code 529 PC false personation/false impersonation, or to discuss your case confidentially with one of our California criminal defense attorneys, do not hesitate to contact us at Shouse Law Group.
We have local criminal law offices in and around Los Angeles, San Diego, Orange County, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura, San Jose, Oakland, the San Francisco Bay area, and several nearby cities.
For more information on the Nevada crime of false personation/impersonation, please see our page on the Nevada crime of false personation/impersonation.
Also see our article on the California crime of unlawful use of ID cards.
1 Penal Code 529 PC – False personation of another in private or official capacity; bail or surety; verification, publication, or acknowledgment of instrument; acts imposing liability or conferring benefit; punishment. (“(a) Every person who falsely personates another in either his or her private or official capacity, and in that assumed character does any of the following, is punishable pursuant to subdivision (b): (1) Becomes bail or surety for any party in any proceeding whatever, before any court or officer authorized to take that bail or surety. (2) Verifies, publishes, acknowledges, or proves, in the name of another person, any written instrument, with intent that the same may be recorded, delivered, or used as true. (3) Does any other act whereby, if done by the person falsely personated, he might, in any event, become liable to any suit or prosecution, or to pay any sum of money, or to incur any charge, forfeiture, or penalty, or whereby any benefit might accrue to the party personating, or to any other person. (b) By a fine not exceeding ten thousand dollars ($10,000), or by imprisonment in a county jail not exceeding one year, or imprisonment pursuant to subdivision (h) of Section 1170, or by both that fine and imprisonment.”)
2 California Jury Instructions – Criminal (“CALJIC”) 15.58 – False Personation. (“Defendant is accused [in Count[s]] of having violated section 529, subdivision (a)[(1)] [(2)] [(3)] of the Penal Code, a crime. Every person who falsely personates another in either his or her private or public capacity, and in that assumed character [ [(1)] becomes bail or surety for any party in any proceeding whatever, before any court or officer authorized to take that bail or surety] [, or] [[(2)] verifies, publishes, acknowledges, or proves, in the name of another person, any written instrument, with the specific intent that the same be recorded, delivered, or used as true] [,or] [[(3)] does any other act whereby, if done by the person falsely personated, [he] [she] might, in any event, become liable to any suit or prosecution, or to pay any sum of money, or to incur any charge, forfeiture, or penalty, or whereby any benefit might accrue to the party personating, or to any other person] is guilty of violating Penal Code section 529, subdivision (a) [(1)] [(2)] [(3)], a crime. In order to prove this crime, each of the following elements must be proved: 1 A person falsely personated another in [his] [her] private or public capacity; [and] 2 That person in that assumed character,[1. became bail or surety for any party in any proceeding whatever, before any court or officer authorized to take that bail or surety[.] [, or[2. (a) verified, published, acknowledged, or proved, in the name of another person a written instrument; and (b) The person did so with the specific intent that the same be recorded, delivered, or used as true[.] [, or][3. did any other act whereby, if done by the person falsely personated, [he] [she] might, in any event become liable to any suit or prosecution, or to pay any sum of money, or to incur any charge, forfeiture, or penalty, or whereby any benefit might accrue to the party personating, or to any other person] [.]”)
3 Penal Code 529 PC – False personation of another in private or official capacity; bail or surety; verification, publication, or acknowledgment of instrument; acts imposing liability or conferring benefit; punishment, endnote 1, above.
5 Same. See also Penal Code 1170(h) PC. (“(1) Except as provided in paragraph (3), a felony punishable pursuant to this subdivision where the term is not specified in the underlying offense shall be punishable by a term of imprisonment in a county jail for 16 months, or two or three years.”)
6 CALJIC 15.58 – False Personation, endnote 2, above.
7 Black's Law Dictionary (9th ed. 2009), impersonation: false impersonation. (“False impersonation. (1878) The crime of falsely representing oneself as another person, usu. a law-enforcement officer, for the purpose of deceiving someone. See 18 USCA §§ 912–917. — Also termed false personation.”)
8 CALJIC 15.58 – False Personation, endnote 2, above.
9 See People v. Cole (1990) 23 Cal.App.4th 1672, 1676. (“Here, however, giving a false birth date and middle name was no more than part of the act of providing the false information upon which the false identity was based. Each statement made in the course of providing contemporaneous statements amounting to false identification logically cannot be construed as separate acts compounding each prior statement.”)
10 Based on People v. Caseres (2012) 203 Cal.App.4th 1173.
11 Based on People v. Robertson (1990) 223 Cal.App.3d 1277, abrogated on other grounds by People v. Rathert (2000) 24 Cal.4th 200.
12 CALJIC 15.58 – False Personation, endnote 2, above.
13 Penal Code 529 PC – False personation of another in private or official capacity; bail or surety; verification, publication, or acknowledgment of instrument; acts imposing liability or conferring benefit; punishment, endnote 1, above.
14 Based on People v. Stacy (2010) 183 Cal.App.4th 1229, 1235. (“Thus, until Officer Bonner was able to compare the photographs of Skrobecky and defendant, Officer Bonner had to assume defendant was who she claimed to be and Skrobecky was at risk of liability for defendant's conduct. Indeed, defendant's very purpose for personating Skrobecky was in the hope that Skrobecky, not defendant, might suffer the punishment for driving while intoxicated. All of this was sufficient to satisfy the element that the person falsely personated “might” become liable in any prosecution or to incur any charge, forfeiture, or penalty.”)
15 Penal Code 529 PC – False personation of another in private or official capacity; bail or surety; verification, publication, or acknowledgment of instrument; acts imposing liability or conferring benefit; punishment, endnote 1, above.
17 Same. See also Penal Code 1170(h) PC, endnote 5, above.
18 Penal Code 29800 PC – Specified convictions; narcotic addiction; restriction on firearm possession; punishment. (“(a)(1) Any person who has been convicted of a felony [including felony false impersonation] under the laws of the United States, the State of California, or any other state, government, or country, or of an offense enumerated in subdivision (a), (b), or (d) of Section 23515, or who is addicted to the use of any narcotic drug, and who owns, purchases, receives, or has in possession or under custody or control any firearm is guilty of a felony.”)
19 See People v. Cole (1990) 23 Cal.App.4th 1672, 1676. (“Here, however, giving a false birth date and middle name was no more than part of the act of providing the false information upon which the false identity was based. Each statement made in the course of providing contemporaneous statements amounting to false identification logically cannot be construed as separate acts compounding each prior statement.”)
20 People v. Caseres, endnote 10, above, at 1191-92. (“Former section 529 requires an additional act beyond these false identifications to elevate the crime to a felony, and that act must be more than merely offering an identifying document, such as a driver's license or birth certificate to support the impersonator's false claim of identity.”)
21 CALJIC 15.58 – False Personation, endnote 2, above.
22 Palm Springs criminal defense attorney Michael Scafiddi is a former police officer who now uses that inside knowledge to help defend clients accused of violating California false personation and criminal fraud laws. He practices criminal defense primarily in San Bernardino and Riverside Counties, and makes appearances at the Murrieta Southwest Justice Center and in Banning, Fontana, Joshua Tree, Barstow, and Victorville.
23 Penal Code 148.9 PC – False representation of identity to peace officer; misdemeanor [related offense to false impersonation]. (“(a) Any person who falsely represents or identifies himself or herself as another person or as a fictitious person to any peace officer listed in Section 830.1 or 830.2, or subdivision (a) of Section 830.33, upon a lawful detention or arrest of the person, either to evade the process of the court, or to evade the proper identification of the person by the investigating officer is guilty of a misdemeanor.”)
25 Penal Code 532 PC – False pretenses; obtaining money, labor or property; punishment; evidence necessary to support conviction [could be charged along with false impersonation]. (“(a) Every person who knowingly and designedly, by any false or fraudulent representation or pretense, defrauds any other person of money, labor, or property, whether real or personal, or who causes or procures others to report falsely of his or her wealth or mercantile character, and by thus imposing upon any person obtains credit, and thereby fraudulently gets possession of money or property, or obtains the labor or service of another, is punishable in the same manner and to the same extent as for larceny of the money or property so obtained.”)
27 Penal Code 487 PC – “Grand theft” defined. (“Grand theft is theft committed in any of the following cases: (a) When the money, labor, or real or personal property taken is of a value exceeding nine hundred fifty dollars ($950), except as provided in subdivision (b). . . .”)
Penal Code 489 PC – Grand theft; punishment [could be in addition to punishment for Penal Code 529 false personation]. (“Grand theft is punishable as follows: . . . (c) In all other cases, by imprisonment in a county jail not exceeding one year or pursuant to subdivision (h) of Section 1170.”)
28 Penal Code 530.5 PC – Unauthorized use of personal identifying information of another person; attempt to obtain credit, goods, services, real property or medical information; commission of crime; punishment for first, subsequent or multiple offenses; sale of information; mail theft; liability of computer service or software providers [related offense to false impersonation]. (“(a) Every person who willfully obtains personal identifying information, as defined in subdivision (b) of Section 530.55, of another person, and uses that information for any unlawful purpose, including to obtain, or attempt to obtain, credit, goods, services, real property, or medical information without the consent of that person, is guilty of a public offense, and upon conviction therefor, shall be punished by a fine, by imprisonment in a county jail not to exceed one year, or by both a fine and imprisonment, or by imprisonment pursuant to subdivision (h) of Section 1170.”)
30 Penal Code 538d PC - False impersonation of a police officer.