Welfare and Institutions Code 10980 WIC - Welfare Fraud
The State of California offers a variety of welfare programs such as CalWORKs, CalFresh, GAIN, general assistance, and others. These programs assist unemployed and underemployed citizens and their families in helping with housing, food, and basic necessities.
But when someone attempts to defraud the system to receive benefits they're not entitled to, it falls under the crime of welfare fraud under the Welfare and Institutions Code 10980 WIC.
Usually, this crime occurs when the welfare recipient or employee deliberately provides false information to receive benefits, food stamps, or Medi-Cal benefits.
The most common reasons someone will face welfare fraud charges are when they fail to report income or property, falsely claim dependents, receive benefits from other states, fail to report a child moved out of their home, and provide additional false information to receive benefits.
When requesting welfare benefits, you are required under the penalty of perjury to provide accurate information, such as your income, dependents, and living situation.
Thus, receiving benefits is a crime after giving false, misleading, or inaccurate information. Typically, there is an investigation before criminal charges are filed.
Most welfare fraud cases are “wobblers” that can be filed as either a misdemeanor or felony crime. You should expect hefty fines, probation, community service, and potential jail time if convicted of welfare fraud.
Further, you should expect to be ordered to pay back the benefits you unlawfully received. 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. Our California criminal defense lawyers will review this law more closely below.
Welfare Fraud Explained
California's Welfare and Institutions Code 10980 defines welfare fraud as willfully making false statements with the intent to deceive to obtain aid or continue to receive assistance from which they are not entitled to receive. Welfare benefits are received from different sources, such as:
- CalFresh - food stamps;
- General Relief;
- Head Start.
When someone receives aid through CalWORKs and CalFresh, they are distributed electronically into an account linked to an Electronic Benefits Transfer "EBT" card.
Under WIC 10980, when someone makes false statements or fails to disclose essential facts when applying for public programs to obtain benefits they are not entitled to, they commit welfare fraud. WIC 10980 specifically identifies certain acts in defining welfare fraud, including:
- Intentionally making a false or misleading statement to receive welfare benefits;
- Misrepresenting or concealing information to receive welfare benefits (or more benefits than they're entitled to;
- Filling out multiple applications to receive multiple benefits.
- Applying for welfare benefits under multiple names;
- Transferring, selling, or counterfeiting welfare benefits for cash (e.g., food stamps).
What Are the Different Types of Welfare Fraud?
Incidents of welfare fraud generally fall into two categories: recipient fraud and internal fraud.
Recipient fraud, the most common type of welfare fraud, occurs when an individual receives (or attempts to receive) welfare benefits for which they do not qualify.
For example, someone might apply for food stamps (CalFresh) but deliberately omits information about their income sources to receive a larger benefit. Or someone might apply for CalWORKs under two separate names to receive twice the cash benefits their household is eligible for.
Internal fraud, though less common, is often more challenging to detect. This type of fraud occurs when someone who works for a welfare program misuses their position to help others illegally obtain benefits.
For example, an employee at the California Department of Social Services (CDSS) might alter a friend's application information to help them qualify for benefits. Or a CalFresh employee might sell food stamps for cash on the side.
What Are the Penalties for Welfare Fraud in California?
Since there are so many ways to violate WIC 10980, some more serious than others, there is a wide range of possible penalties for committing welfare fraud depending on which part of the law you are convicted of violating.
Some offenses are misdemeanors, some are felonies, and some are "wobblers," meaning they could be prosecuted as either:
- Most misdemeanor offenses of welfare fraud are punishable by fines up to $1000 and up to one year in jail;
- Most felony offenses are punishable by fines of up to $5000 and either 16 months, two years, or three years in state prison.
Regarding specific types of offenses:
Obtaining fraudulent benefits or food stamps under WIC 10980(f) is charged as a misdemeanor if the value is less than $950 or as a felony if the value exceeds $950. Making false statements is typically a misdemeanor.
Filing fraudulent applications (e.g., multiple or fictitious names) is a "wobbler." Wrongfully acquiring, transferring, selling, or using blank food stamp authorizations is a felony.
What are the enhanced penalties for electronic transfer? Suppose you are convicted of welfare fraud in which the fraudulent benefits were transferred electronically in an amount exceeding $50,000? In that case, you will face an additional sentence added to your initial penalty.
This sentence is an additional 1-4 years in prison, depending on the total dollar amount illegally transferred.
What Are the Related Crimes?
- Penal Code 118 PC – perjury;
- Penal Code 182 PC – conspiracy;
- Penal Code 470 PC – forgery;
- Penal Code 487 PC - grand theft.
What Are the Common Defenses for Welfare Fraud?
If you have been accused or charged with welfare fraud in California, an experienced attorney may have several options for defense strategies that may apply to your case. Some of the most common include:
- You did not intentionally commit fraud. To convict you, prosecutors must demonstrate that your actions were willful. If your attorney can demonstrate that you made an honest mistake on your application or failed to disclose information by accident, you cannot be convicted of welfare fraud;
- Mistaken identity. If, for example, someone filed a fraudulent claim using your name, prosecutors might have wrongfully implicated you in the fraud—in which case your attorney can show that they've got the wrong person;
- Insufficient evidence. Prosecutors must provide enough evidence to prove your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. If you have been sloppy with your paperwork (for example, in internal fraud cases), it might be incriminating, but it isn't necessarily conclusive.
In California, the primary focus of welfare fraud investigation is on the missing benefits. Suppose you can repay some or all of the fraudulently obtained benefits?
In that case, prosecutors are often willing to negotiate a restitution agreement in return for leniency, reduced charges, reduced penalties, or dropping the charges altogether.
In some cases, you could be eligible for a diversion program, meaning you can get the charges dismissed after you have paid back the benefits you receive. You can set up a payment plan for a specific monthly amount. A diversion program is designed to lessen legal penalties for first-time offenders.
In some cases, completing a diversion program can keep you from serving jail time, but you will be required to plead guilty in court and agree to repay all the welfare benefits you were not entitled to receive.
Once you have paid the amount, you will return to court, and the judge will dismiss the charges. If you fail don't follow the agreement, the judge will return to your guilty plea and sentence you. Early intervention into your case by our law firm could significantly impact your case's outcome. Contact Eisner Gorin LLP for an initial case review by phone or use the contact form.