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  • What Happens If You Accidentally Use a Counterfeit Bill?

    Posted on by JACK MKHITARIAN

    What Happens If You Accidentally Use a Counterfeit BillCash remains king. Even though we use debit and credit cards when buying an item at a store or online, many of us still pay with cash. Although buying goods and services with cash helps maintain our privacy, we run the risk of passing a counterfeit bill. 

    So, what happens if you accidentally use a counterfeit bill? You could face state or federal fraud charges for using counterfeit bills—so you will need an aggressive defense team if that happens. 

    Do you know where to turn for help? In Albuquerque and across the state, the experienced lawyers from the New Mexico Criminal Law Offices can help. Since 1997, we have fought to protect our clients’ rights and preserve their liberty. Contact our office today to discuss your legal rights.

    Can I Be Charged If I Didn’t Know the Money Was Counterfeit?

    Simply put, yes, you can. However, keep in mind that you are presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. The presumption of innocence remains with you unless and until the government, represented by the district attorney, produces evidence that convinces a jury of your guilt. 

    In New Mexico, the police only need probable cause to charge you with a crime. Therefore, if you accidentally bought an item with “funny money,” you could face a criminal offense. But as we’ve explained, a charge is far from a conviction. As you will see below, the prosecutor must prove that you intended to defraud someone to get a conviction for forgery or fraud. Therefore, even though the police can charge you with a crime for unintentionally using counterfeit money, your lawyer can certainly argue that you did not have fraudulent intent and are, therefore, not guilty of the crime.


    According to New Mexico statutes, forgery occurs when a person falsely makes or alters any signature or another part of a legal document with the intent to injure or defraud. Forgery also occurs when a person knowingly issues or transfers a forged document with the intent to defraud or injure. 


    You could also face a fraud charge. By definition, fraud means taking anything of value by intentional misrepresentation or fraudulent conduct, practices, or representations. According to the jury instructions for fraud, the government must prove that the alleged victim relied on the misrepresentation and acted in a way the person might not otherwise have acted. The fraudulent intent must exist at the time the misrepresentation and reliance occurred.

    Under federal law, making, using, and possessing counterfeit money is a federal crime. Additionally, federal counterfeit laws pertain to printing false currency and possessing materials to produce counterfeit money. 

    Penalties for Counterfeit Money

    The possible consequences of passing counterfeit money depend on the value of goods or services exchanged. Under New Mexico’s fraud statute, property fraudulently obtained valued at less than $250 is a petty misdemeanor. Petty misdemeanors can be punished with a jail sentence of no longer than six months and a $500 fine. 

    Misdemeanor charges carry up to one year in jail and a $1,000 fine. Misdemeanor fraud occurs when the property procured fraudulently has a market value between $250 and $500. 

    The judge can defer judgment or suspend your jail sentence and put you on probation. The judge may order you to pay restitution for the seller’s loss. 

    A fourth-degree felony occurs when the property taken costs $500 to $2,500. Someone convicted of a fourth-degree felony faces a basic sentence of 18 months in prison. 

    Fraud is a third-degree felony when the property exchanged for counterfeit notes is valued at between $2,500 and $20,000. The basic sentence for this crime is three years in prison. 

    Fraudulently obtained property with a market value exceeding $20,000 is a second-degree felony that carries a basic sentence of nine years in prison.

    Furthermore, on a federal level, a conviction for using counterfeit money carries a period of incarceration of up to 20 years, along with a $250,000 fine. Judges can depart from this sentence structure. Having the right lawyer by your side increases your chance of avoiding incarceration for passing counterfeit money. 

    Defenses Against Counterfeit Money Charges

    As experienced defense lawyers, we focus on the intent required by the statute to commit the crime. The mens rea element, or guilty mind, is the most difficult element for the government to prove. The government bears the burden to prove each element of the case against you beyond a reasonable doubt. Therefore, the prosecutor has to prove your intent before a jury can find you guilty. How might the prosecutor try to do that?

    Closely examining the counterfeit bills themselves is one way to prove your intent. If there are small differences between real money and the fake money you accidentally passed, then the chances are high that a jury will reasonably conclude that you had no idea you possessed counterfeit money. On the other hand, notes with strange characters or appearing to have a funny or irregular color might indicate that you knew the notes were fake. Odd or out-of-circulation denominations are another way to prove you knew you had fake money. For instance, there are no $1,000 bills in circulation any longer. 

    But, you may have a good defense based on lack of intent if the State has to call an expert witness from the U.S. Treasury to testify about the differences in the money you used. How should a regular person know that the 100s obtained from the ATM were fake? 

    Other Defenses

    Your defense lawyer from the New Mexico Criminal Law Offices can also review your case for other defenses. Identifying the correct person is a critical component of the government’s case. What if you had an alibi? Perhaps you were in Santa Fe when someone misidentified you as the person who bought a new refrigerator from a big box store in Albuquerque with fake cash. A skilled defense lawyer knows how to present alibi evidence to prove you were miles away when the crime occurred. 

    Knowledgeable defense lawyers understand the complexity of every case and will try to find the best defense for your unique situation. Then they will present the best defense possible under the circumstances.

    Contact an Aggressive New Mexico Defense Lawyer Now

    Clearing your name is our top priority at the New Mexico Criminal Law Offices. How do we do it? We evaluate every case and look for the unique aspects that will give you the edge you need. Since 1997, we have delivered positive results time after time. Contact us today for a free case evaluation.