Welfare fraud laws are covered under California Welfare and Institutions Code 10980. In basic terms, welfare fraud is the criminal offense of unlawfully receiving welfare benefits. Typically, this white collar crime occurs when the welfare recipient or employee intentionally provides false information in order to receive benefits, food stamps or Medi-Cal benefits.
In Los Angeles County, welfare fraud has been a major problem for many years, where an investigation revealed millions of dollars in overpayments. The majority or welfare fraud cases are known as a “wobbler.” This means the Los Angles County prosecutor has the discretion to file the case as either a misdemeanor or felony crime.
If you are convicted of welfare fraud, you can expect large fines, probation, community service, and potential jail time. In addition, you should also expect to be ordered to pay back the benefits you unlawfully received. It should be noted that you may have the chance of getting your charges reduced or dismissed if you pay back all or a significant part of the benefits you received.
When you ask for welfare benefits, you are legally required under the penalty of perjury to provide accurate information, including your income, dependents, and living situation. Therefore, it's a crime to receive benefits after giving false, misleading, or inaccurate information. In most cases, there is a thorough investigation before criminal charges are actually filed.
The most common reasons people find themselves facing welfare fraud charges includes situations where they failed to report income or property, falsely claimed dependents, received benefits from multiple states, failing to report a child moved out of their home, and providing other false information to receive benefits.
If you have been accused of welfare fraud, you need to consult with a Los Angeles criminal defense lawyer at Eisner Gorin LLP. We have extensive experience is all types of welfare fraud cases, Now that we have covered a general overview of welfare fraud, let's take a closer look at the different types of welfare fraud cases, legal definitions, penalties, and defenses below.
Legal Definition of Welfare Fraud
California Welfare and Institutions Code 10980 describes welfare fraud as willfully making false statements, with the intent to deceive, in order to obtain aid or continue to receive aid to which they are not entitle to receive. Welfare benefits come in different forms, including:
- CalFresh (food stamps)
- General Relief
- Head Start
When people receive aid through CalWORKs and CalFresh, the benefits are distributed electronically that are placed in an account directly linked to an Electronic Benefits Transfer "EBT" card.
In simple terms, welfare fraud occurs if you knowingly submit false information or you fail to provide information when you make application for the public benefits programs listed above. Under WIC 10980, you can commit welfare fraud in a variety of unlawful acts, including:
- You intentionally misstate information to receive benefits
- You failed to provide relevant information to receive benefits
- You applied for benefits using more than one name
- You filed multiple applications to obtain multiple benefits
- You use, transfer, purchase, sell, or possess counterfeit food stamps
As you can see above, California Welfare and Institutions Code 10980 covers a broad range of fraudulent behavior in order to receive welfare benefits. If you have been charged with committing welfare fraud, the Los Angeles county prosecutor must be able to prove, beyond any reasonable doubt, every element of the crime to convict you.
In other words, they must be show you knowingly made false statements, failed to provide relevant information, or submitted a fraudulent claim with the specific intent to obtain welfare benefits you were not entitled to receive.
Investigating Welfare Fraud in Los Angeles
The Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office has a dedicated division that investigates allegations of welfare fraud. It's called the Welfare Fraud Prevention and Investigation Unit (WFP&I) and they are responsible to “discover, investigate, and prosecute” welfare fraud.
Their main function is to collect information and provide prosecutors with sufficient evidence to pursue criminal charges of welfare fraud. The unit has 110 field investigators who work on active and closed cases. These investigators receive welfare fraud referrals from different sources that include a public welfare fraud hotline, and from Los Angeles County social services employees who have the responsibility of distributing the welfare benefits.
They will typically start their investigation by speaking directly to the recipient of the welfare benefits to ask them questions about the information they submitted in order to receive benefits. In this manner, they are attempting to confirm if their information was accurate.
The investigators will also speak with their family, friends, co-workers, in an attempt to uncover information that would support allegations of welfare fraud. After they complete their investigation, they will provide their findings to a Los Angeles County prosecutor who will need to determine if there is sufficient information to file criminal charges of welfare fraud under Welfare and Institutions Code 10980.
In some cases, they might decide to pursue charges under a related offense (see below). The prosecutor may ask the investigator to collect more information before they make a decision. In other situations, the prosecutor could determine there is simply not enough evidence to pursue criminal charges, or they even have the option of putting the case into a welfare fraud diversion program. If you are under criminal investigation for welfare fraud, contact our Los Angles criminal defense attorneys to review the details and options.
Legal Penalties for Welfare Fraud
Under California Welfare and Institutions Code 10980, welfare fraud can be filed as either a misdemeanor or felony crime. This is commonly known as a “wobbler,” and the type of charges you will face will depend of the specific value of benefits received and your criminal history.
If you are convicted of making false or misleading statements to receive benefits under WIC 10980(a), the legal penalties include up to six months in a Los Angeles County jail, and a fine up to $500.
If you file a fraudulent application under WIC 10980(b), it's a “wobbler” and can be charged as a misdemeanor or felony offense. You will typically be convicted for filing a false application if you filed multiple applications, applied for benefits under a fake name, or used a false identification.
If you are convicted of a misdemeanor offense of false application, you could receive up to one year in county jail, and/or a fine up to $1,000. A felony conviction for false application carries a penalty of 16 months, two or even three years, and/or a fine up to $5,000.
Obtaining or Receiving Fraudulent Benefits
If you are convicted of obtaining or receiving false welfare benefits under WIC 10980(c), it's a misdemeanor crime if the benefits you received were $950 or less. A conviction carries up to one year in county jail, and/or a fine up to $500. However, if the welfare benefits you received were greater than $950, the legal penalties include up to three years in jail, and/or a fine up to $5,000.
Food Stamps Blank Authorizations
If you are convicted of activity under Welfare and Institutions Code 10980(d) with unauthorized blank authorizations in order to participate in the food stamp program, you are guilty of a felony offense. The legal penalties include 16 months, two or three years in jail, and/or a fine up to $5,000.
Food Stamp Fraud
If you are convicted of food stamp fraud under WIC 10980(f), it can be either a misdemeanor or felony crime. Again, if the total value of the benefits received was $950 or less, it's a misdemeanor offense carrying a jail sentence of up to six months and a fine up to $1,000.
If the value of welfare benefits was more than $950, it's a felony crime that carries up to three years in jail and a fine up to $5,000. It should be noted you could face additional penalties if you committed welfare fraud using electronically transferred benefits. The additional penalty includes up to four years in a California state prison.
Diversion Program for Welfare Fraud
In some cases, you might be eligible for a diversion program, which means you can have your fraud charges eventually dismissed after you have paid back the benefits you receive. You could even set up a payment plan for a specific monthly amount.
The diversion program is designed to lessen stiff legal penalties for first time offenders. In some welfare fraud cases, successfully completing a diversion program can keep them from serving time in jail. Typically, you will have to plead guilty in court and make an agreement to repay all the welfare benefits you were not entitled to receive.
After you have paid back the entire amount, you will then go back to court and the judge will dismiss the charges. If you fail to honor the agreement, the Los Angeles County court judge will then return to your guilty plea and sentence you.
This type of diversion option is good for defendants will little or no criminal history, which are not facing other criminal charges, and didn't receive a large amount of money in benefits. If you need more information about a welfare fraud diversion program, call our Los Angeles criminal defense law firm.
Legal Defenses for Welfare Fraud
Our Los Angeles criminal defense lawyers can use a variety of legal defense strategies against allegations you violated welfare fraud laws under California Welfare and Institutions Code 10980. It's important to note that being accused of welfare fraud is different from being convicted.
Remember, as we discussed above, the Los Angeles County prosecutor has the burden to prove you are guilty beyond reasonable doubt. Every welfare fraud case is unique and requires a close review of the specific details to plan an effective strategy for your case. However, the most common legal defenses against welfare fraud charges include:
No fraudulent intent – All fraud related cases require proving intent to obtain a conviction. This is the key element of the crime that must be proven. In some cases, our criminal lawyers might be able to successfully argue that you had a reasonable belief you submitted a legitimate claim for welfare benefits.
We might be able to show that any incorrect information you submitted was not on purpose or you simply didn't realize you needed to update the status about your children becoming ineligible. If you are accused of submitting multiple claims, we might be able to argue it was an accident. If our attorneys are able to cast some reasonable doubt about your intent, you could have a good chance of avoiding a conviction.
False accusation – In certain cases of welfare fraud, our lawyers may be able to present an argument that the accusations against you are false. For example, perhaps another person used your name and identification to submit for welfare benefits and you are victim of identity theft.
In other situations, we might be able to prove administrative clerical errors were the cause of the accusations, when in fact; you were not involved in any fraudulent attempt to unlawfully obtain welfare benefits.
Contact our Los Angeles Criminal Attorneys
If you have been accused of any type of welfare fraud in violation of California Welfare and Institutions Code 10980, you should call the Los Angeles criminal defense lawyers at Eisner Gorin LLP.
A conviction will typically result is harsh legal consequences which will impact your future opportunities. Early intervention into your case by our law firm can have a tremendous impact of the outcome of your case. Contact us at 877-781-1570.