The California WIC 10980 defines two primary forms of welfare fraud: internal fraud and recipient fraud. The most common form of welfare fraud is recipient fraud. This type of fraud involves people providing incomplete or false information to obtain welfare benefits, food stamps, or other benefits like Medi-Cal benefits to which they are not entitled. Internal welfare fraud occurs when a government official or employee plays a role in distributing or assigning welfare benefits to ineligible people. Welfare fraud is a serious crime under California law, usually charged as a wobbler. California Criminal Lawyer Group can help you create the right defense to fight welfare fraud charges in Anaheim, CA.
Welfare Programs In California
Welfare programs in California are available in many forms. Eligible participants can receive the following benefits:
- Cal WORKs —This program offers short-term cash benefits to families that need assistance with food, housing, clothing, and utilities.
- Cal Fresh— This program is commonly referred to as the food stamp program. It provides electronic benefits every month, which can be used to buy food.
- The In-home services — This program helps to address issues like substance abuse, domestic violence, and mental health.
- General assistance or General relief services
- Greater Avenues for Independence (GAIN)
Currently, food stamps and paper checks are becoming obsolete. Cash aids and benefits from Cal WORKs and Cal Fresh are usually wired electronically. The benefits recipients have an account linked to an EBT (Electronic Benefits Transfer) card. The recipient uses this card like a debit card to access the benefits from their accounts.
How Welfare Fraud Occurs
Welfare fraud typically occurs when a person fails to report crucial information or provides false information when applying for benefits. This false information enables people to access benefits to which they are not entitled. Any form of welfare fraud is a crime, as outlined by the WIC 10980. You may violate this statute if you:
- Intentionally misstate or fail to give relevant information to obtain, increase, or retain undeserved benefits
- File multiple applications for welfare benefits or apply for benefits under more than one name
- Use, acquire, transfer, sell, purchase, possess, counterfeit, or alter actual food stamps or authorizations to receive food stamps
Prosecutors can learn about welfare fraud from many sources. Many local DA's offices have welfare fraud units that solely focus on prosecuting welfare fraud. Prosecutors mainly get referrals regarding welfare fraud from:
- Local departments of social services that are in charge of overseeing the distribution of welfare benefits
- Public hotlines for reporting welfare fraud
- Statewide public reporting hotlines
- Other agencies that suspect instances of welfare fraud
Investigating Welfare Fraud
After receiving tips regarding welfare fraud, prosecuting agencies usually begin their investigations by contacting the named welfare recipients. The agencies question the recipients about the welfare benefits they receive and the information they provided to obtain the benefits. The investigators may also obtain additional information by contacting the recipients' friends, family, neighbors, and co-workers. All the information gathered comes in handy in proving or negating the welfare fraud allegations. Witness interviews and unannounced home visits may also help reveal additional information, including cases of:
- Elder abuse
- Child neglect or abuse
- Domestic violence
- Drug crimes evidence
Other agencies may also be involved in the investigation of welfare fraud. These agencies include:
- Family support services
- Child welfare services
- Adult protective services
- Any other relevant authority
After an investigator collects all the relevant information, they present it to the deputy DA, who reviews it and determines if a criminal filing is necessary. The District Attorney will file charges under WIC 10980 if he or she believes that there is enough evidence to prosecute. The District Attorney may also decide to:
- Refer the fraud case back to the investigator and advise them to gather more information
- Reject the case after establishing that there isn't ample information or evidence of wrongdoing
- The prosecutor may also opt to refer the case to the welfare fraud diversion program, where the defendant pays restitution instead of criminal charges.
Recipient Welfare Fraud Explained
Recipient welfare fraud is a form of fraud perpetrated by a recipient or a person who unlawfully attempts to receive welfare benefits to which they are not legally entitled. There are numerous ways of committing recipient welfare fraud, with some methods being more common than others. The most common forms of recipient welfare fraud occur when a recipient obtains benefits illegally by:
- Claiming to be a single parent, yet the other parent is available and living in the home.
- Failure to report additional benefits or income
- Submitting a welfare claim for a child who does not live in your home
- Submitting a claim for ineligible or fictitious child
- Collecting welfare benefits from another state despite collecting benefits from California
Internal Welfare Fraud
Internal welfare fraud occurs when a government agency employee distributes or tries to distribute or collect unlawful welfare benefits from that agency. This is usually an inside job whereby employees falsify applications for ineligible friends and family members and split the welfare benefits. Welfare agency workers may commit internal welfare fraud by making a false claim about the applicant’s income, creating fictitious children, or failing to disclose facts that would disqualify their friends or relatives from receiving welfare benefits.
Any person who commits internal welfare fraud may also face embezzlement charges alongside fraud charges. It violates the California PC 503 embezzlement law to take property or money entrusted to you. Embezzlement is commonly known as employee theft.
If a social service worker in charge of the distribution of welfare benefits overlooks some of the procedures and misappropriates these benefits, they could face welfare fraud charges and embezzlement charges. In addition, they could be subject to imprisonment of up to three years in a California state prison. They could also face an additional four-year sentence if they embezzle more than $65,000.
The Punishment For Welfare Fraud Under California Law
What happens when you commit welfare fraud? There are several punishments under California WIC 10980. The specific punishment will depend on your particular charge. For example, some violations of WIC 10980 are punishable as misdemeanors, while others are punishable as felonies. Other offenses are wobblers, meaning that the prosecutor may charge them as felonies or misdemeanors. In deciding whether to charge a crime as a felony or misdemeanor, the prosecutor considers the defendant’s criminal history and the facts of the case. Below are some of the typical offenses under WIC 10980 and their applicable penalties:
Making False or Misleading Statements
If the prosecutor accuses you of making a misleading or false statement to obtain welfare benefits, you will face misdemeanor charges. This crime is punishable by a jail time of not more than six months in a California county jail and a fine that does not exceed $500.
Filing a Fraudulent Application
Filing a fraudulent application for welfare benefits is a wobbler offense. You could be guilty of submitting a fraudulent application if you:
- You apply for welfare benefits using a false identity
- You apply for welfare benefits to help a fictitious person
- You apply several welfare benefits applications for the same person
If the prosecutor charges this crime as a felony, the penalties could include:
- Confinement of sixteen (16) months, two (2) years, or three (3)years in a county jail
- A fine of up to $5,000
If the crime is a misdemeanor, the penalties may include:
- A jail time of not more than one year in a county jail
- A fine of not more than $1000
Obtaining or Retaining Fraudulent Benefits
It is a misdemeanor or crime to obtain or retain fraudulent welfare benefits. However, you could face felony charges if the benefits were more than $950. To charge you with a misdemeanor, the prosecutor must prove that you obtained or retained fraudulent welfare benefits, but the benefits did not exceed $950. If charged as a misdemeanor crime, the applicable penalties are:
- A jail time of up to six months in a California county jail
- A maximum fine of $500
If the crime is a felony, the applicable penalties are:
- Imprisonment of sixteen months, two years, or three years in a county jail
- Up to $5000 in fines
Welfare Fraud Involving Food Stamps
You could face felony charges if the prosecutor accuses you of engaging in any activity involving blank authorizations to enable you to participate in a food stamp program. This felony crime is punishable by:
- Imprisonment of sixteen (16)months, two (2) years, or three (3) years in a county jail
- A fine that does not exceed $5,000
The crime becomes a wobbler if the defendant uses, transfers, sells, purchases, or possesses food stamps, food stamps authorizations, or electronically transferred benefits in an illegal manner. If the value of the food authorizations or the food stamps does not exceed $950, the crime is a misdemeanor, punishable by:
- A fine that doesn’t exceed $500
- A jail time not exceeding six months
If the value of food stamps or food authorizations exceeds $950, the crime is a felony punishable by:
- Sixteen (16) months, two (2)years, or three (3)years imprisonment in a county jail
- A fine not exceeding $5000
When Welfare Fraud Involves Electronically Transferred Benefits
Additional penalties will apply if you commit welfare fraud and the prosecutor proves that the fraud involved electronically transferred benefits. The sentences will be additional and consecutive to the welfare fraud benefits. The additional sentences will include the following:
- If the transfer of benefits exceeds $50,000, you will face an additional sentence of one year
- If the transfer exceeds $150,000, you will be subject to an additional sentence of two years
- If the benefits transfer exceeds $1,000,000, you will be subject to an additional sentence of three years
- You will be subject to an additional sentence of four years if the benefits transfer exceeds $2,500,000
A conviction of welfare fraud might also subject you to additional penalties other than the ones outlined above:
- If you hold a state license, a welfare fraud conviction may subject you to professional disciplines, especially if you commit a crime of moral turpitude. Fraud offenses are usually classified as crimes of moral turpitude.
- If you are an alien or a legal immigrant, a welfare fraud conviction may lead to deportation or being marked inadmissible into the United States.
- A welfare fraud conviction could also lead to disqualification from receiving any future welfare or public assistance benefits.
Restitution Instead of Criminal Charges
At times, the defendant may have a chance to refund or repay all the fraudulently obtained welfare benefits without facing a criminal conviction at all. Many counties in California offer a fraud diversion program. Different diversion programs may vary. In general, a diversion program allows a person with little or no criminal history who has not deprived the state too much money the opportunity to repay the fraudulently obtained money. In exchange for paying restitution, the defendant gets a dismissal of their fraud charges. Initially, the defendant must plead guilty to the welfare fraud charges. However, when the defendant completes the diversion program successfully, the court dismisses the charges against them.
However, if the defendant does not return all the fraudulently obtained money, the judge pronounces judgment and imposes a sentence against them. Sometimes the prosecutor may be unwilling to allow the defendant to pay restitution instead of criminal charges. However, if you pay your ill-gotten benefits voluntarily, the judge may be convinced to reduce your sentence.
Fighting Welfare Fraud Charges
You should not give up when the prosecutor accuses you of welfare fraud. You can use several legal defenses to fight the charges the prosecutor brings against you. With the help of an experienced criminal defense attorney, you can use the following defenses to fight your charges:
You Had No Fraudulent Intent
Irrespective of the fraud offense you commit, the prosecutor cannot convict you unless they prove that you had fraudulent intent while committing the crime. If the prosecutor does not prove beyond reasonable doubt that you had a specific intent to defraud, you can’t be guilty of welfare fraud. The judge may instruct the jury to find you not guilty of the crime. Your attorney can put across several arguments to show that you had no fraudulent intent.
For example, you can point out that you submitted a legitimate claim for welfare benefits and any omissions or incorrect statements were not intentional. You could also explain that you did not know you needed to disclose information regarding gifts, lottery winnings, or inheritance proceeds to the welfare department. You could also point out that you forgot to update your status after one of your children became ineligible for welfare benefits. Usually, a child may become ineligible for welfare benefits after attaining a certain age.
There Is Insufficient Evidence Against You
If the prosecutor does not have sufficient evidence to show that you committed welfare fraud, you can use this as a basis to fight your charges. For example, your employer may have accused you of welfare fraud because they noticed that you had multiple duplicate files with some documents missing from your case files. The employer may also have suspected you were engaging in welfare fraud because you had suspicious contact with some welfare benefits applicants.
Even if the evidence outlined above seems incriminating, the evidence is not conclusive. Even if this evidence suggests that you were embezzling welfare funds, the court may relieve you of the fraud charges if the prosecutor doesn’t have sufficient evidence against you. You are legally entitled to an acquittal unless the prosecutor can prove that you committed welfare fraud beyond a reasonable doubt.
Mistaken Identity or False Accusation
This defense mainly applies in cases of internal welfare fraud, even if it can also apply to cases involving recipient welfare fraud. Even if the prosecutor accuses you of welfare fraud, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you are the actual perpetrator of the crime. For example, you could face internal welfare fraud charges, yet the applicants are your friends or relatives trying to take advantage of your position at work without your knowledge. Perhaps someone applied with incorrect information, and just because you are close, you did not inspect the application but assumed that the information therein was correct.
This type of negligence could lead to loss of your job but should not lead to criminal charges. Maybe you are facing recipient welfare fraud charges because you indicated a fictitious child in your application. However, another person altered the application without your knowledge. Another person could have used your name and social security numbers to apply for welfare benefits. In this case, you would be a victim of identity theft whereby someone else is using your information without your knowledge.
Government procedures often involve many clerical errors. Therefore, you could be falsely accused of welfare fraud based on clerical errors. There are many reasons why you could be accused falsely of identity theft. An attorney has the necessary expertise and resources to help them investigate false accusation and identity theft cases.
Reduction of Your Charges Based On Restitution Agreement
In welfare fraud cases, the main goal of prosecutors is to recover lost money for the county or the state. The prosecutor may be willing to reduce or even drop all your charges if you are willing to pay a substantial amount or all the money you obtained through welfare fraud.
Welfare fraud under California law mainly involves allegations of forgery, theft, and perjury. The prosecutor may file certain offenses alongside welfare fraud or instead of welfare fraud. The following are the related crimes:
Grand Theft — California PC 487
Under California law, you could face grand theft charges if you unlawfully take another person's money, property, or labor valued at $950 or higher. The crime of grand theft is a wobbler, charged as a misdemeanor or felony. If you take property whose value does not exceed $950, the offense is charged as petty theft. If the prosecutor charges you with misdemeanor grand theft, the penalties will include a jail time of not more than one year in a California county jail. If the prosecutor charges the crime as a felony, the punishment will include incarceration of sixteen (16) months, two (2)years, or three (3)years. You can use the following legal defenses to fight a grand theft conviction:
- You had no intention to steal.
- You had a reasonable belief that the property belonged to you
- You are a victim of a false accusation
- You had the property owner’s permission to take the said property
Forgery — California PC 470
You could face forgery charges under the California PC 470 if you fraudulently alter certain documents or falsify another person's signature. According to California PC 470, it is a crime to:
- Sign another person’s name or the name of a fictitious person
- Counterfeit or forge the handwriting or the seal of another
- Falsify, corrupt, or alter any record of judgment, codicil, or legal will
- Alter, falsify, counterfeit, or forge certain documents like bonds, checks, and money orders
Forgery is a wobbler crime that can be charged as a misdemeanor or felony. The specific charges will depend on the facts of a case. A misdemeanor conviction is punishable by jail custody of up to one year, while a felony conviction is punishable by jail custody of up to 3 years.
You can use the following legal defenses to fight a forgery conviction:
- Coerced confession
- False accusation
- You had no intent to defraud
Perjury — California PC 118
The California PC 118 defines perjury as intentionally giving false testimony while under oath. The prosecutor must prove the following elements to accuse you of perjury:
- You took an oath and promised to testify truthfully
- You stated that certain information was true, despite knowing that the information was false
- The information you offered was material
- You knew you were making a statement under oath
- When you made the false statement, you intended to testify falsely
Perjury is a felony crime punishable by:
- Imprisonment of up to four years in a state prison
- A fine that does not exceed $10,000
A perjury conviction will not have negative immigration consequences. If the prosecutor accuses you of perjury, you can use the following legal defenses to fight the charges:
- You did not lie intentionally
- You did not testify under oath
- You did not make a material statement
Under California law, welfare fraud is a serious crime punishable by hefty fines, imprisonment, and paying restitution to the victim. Therefore, it is advisable to contact an experienced attorney immediately after the prosecutor accuses you of welfare fraud. For reliable legal representation in Anaheim, CA, contact the California Criminal Lawyer Group. Call us at 714-766-0965 and speak to one of our attorneys.