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Is it a crime to impersonate someone online in California?

Posted by Neil Shouse | Jul 09, 2019 | 0 Comments

computer hacker impersonating someone online

Impersonating someone online can be a crime in California. Penal Code 529 PC is the California statute that defines the crime of “false impersonation” (also known as false personation).

PC 529 makes it a crime for a person to personate someone falsely and to either:

  1. do another act that might cause the person being impersonated to pay money or become liable in a court proceeding, or
  2. receive some benefit by impersonating the other party.

This statute applies, for example, to false impersonations done either:

  • online,
  • in direct communication with another person, or
  • in a written letter or document.

False personation is a wobbler under California law, meaning it can be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony.

If charged as a misdemeanor, the crime is punishable by:

  • imprisonment in the county jail for up to one year, and/or
  • a maximum fine of $10,000.

If charged as a felony, the offense is punishable by:

  • imprisonment in the county jail for 16 months, two years, or three years, and/or
  • a maximum fine of $10,000.

Luckily, a person accused of false personation can raise a legal defense to challenge the accusation. Common defenses include that the defendant:

  • did not perform an additional act,
  • did not receive a benefit, and
  • was falsely accused.

What is false impersonation under Penal Code 529 PC?

Penal Code 529 is the California statute that makes it a crime for a person to commit “false impersonation.

This statute applies to situations involving online impersonations. It also covers other scenarios, such as false impersonations involving:

  • direct communications, or
  • those that use letters or some type of written document.

The crime of false impersonation means that a party personated someone falsely (that is, pretended to be them) in their public or private capacity and either:

  1. performed some other act that caused the person being impersonated to become liable to a lawsuit or prosecution, or to become obligated to pay money, or
  2. received some benefit from impersonating the other person.

Some examples of illegal acts under PC 529 include:

  • Martha creates a false Facebook page under her ex-boyfriend's name, posts rude and offensive comments regrading others, and as a result, the “ex” gets fired from his job.
  • when purchasing clothes online, Juan enters the personal information of a friend (including her credit card information), and resultingly, the friend is obligated to pay for the clothes.
  • after her husband gets arrested, Nia goes to a bail bond company, pretends to be her mother, and secures bail for her husband by signing her mother's name.

With regards to the performance of some additional act, mentioned above, please note that PC 529 criminalizes more than just the false personation of one person as another. The false impersonation must be performed with an additional act that creates a legal or financial liability for the person being impersonated.

What are the penalties for falsely impersonating another person?

False personation is a wobbler under California law. This means it can be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony depending on:

  • the facts of a given case, and
  • the criminal history of the defendant.

If charged as a misdemeanor, the crime is punishable by:

  • misdemeanor (or summary) probation,
  • imprisonment in the county jail for up to one year, and/or
  • a maximum fine of $10,000.

If charged as a felony, the offense is punishable by:

  • felony (or formal) probation,
  • imprisonment in the county jail for 16 months, two years, or three years, and/or
  • a maximum fine of $10,000.

Are there legal defenses to accusations of violating Penal Code 529?

Fortunately, a defendant can raise a legal defense to try and challenge an accusation of false impersonation. Some common defenses include:

  1. no additional act – this means that an accused can show that while he may have falsely impersonated someone, he never took some additional act that led to a liability.
  2. no benefit received – here, the defendant can say that eve though he falsely impersonated someone, he never received a benefit from doing so.
  3. falsely accused - unfortunately, it is not at all uncommon for people to get prosecuted based on false allegations. Thus, it is a valid defense for a defendant to say that a party falsely accused him of violating Penal Code 529.

Is it a crime for a person to falsely identify himself to a police officer?

California Penal Code 148.9 PC makes it a crime for a person to falsely identify himself to a law enforcement officer.

The major differences between Penal Code 529 false impersonation and Penal Code 148.9 falsely identification to a peace officer are:

  • Penal Code 148.9 requires a person to falsely identify himself as someone else to a peace officer who is lawfully detaining or arresting him;
  • Penal Code 148.9 does not require an additional act; and
  • Penal Code 148.9 is a misdemeanor in all cases—not a wobbler.

Because of this last fact, 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 an accused if:

  1. the false impersonation allegations involve identification of the defendant to a police officer, and
  2. there is doubt as to whether the accused performed an “additional act.”

About the Author

Neil Shouse

A former Los Angeles prosecutor, attorney Neil Shouse graduated with honors from UC Berkeley and Harvard Law School (and completed additional graduate studies at MIT). He has been featured on CNN, Good Morning America, Dr Phil, Court TV, The Today Show and Court TV. Mr Shouse has been recognized by the National Trial Lawyers as one of the Top 100 Criminal and Top 100 Civil Attorneys.

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