Worthless Checks

Fundamentals of Criminal Law by Adam J. McKee

Writing a worthless check, often referred to as writing a bad check, is an offense that involves the intentional issuance of a check knowing that there are insufficient funds in the account, or the account is closed, to cover the amount. This act, seen as a form of fraud or deceit, undermines the trust integral to financial transactions.

Statutory Provisions and Examples

Various jurisdictions have specific statutes criminalizing the issuance of worthless checks. For instance:

  • Florida Statutes Section 832.05: In Florida, it is unlawful to issue a check when funds are insufficient knowingly. The statute classifies offenses based on the check amount, with penalties ranging from misdemeanors to felonies for larger amounts.
  • California Penal Code Section 476a: California law stipulates that writing a check with knowledge of insufficient funds is a misdemeanor. However, if the total amount exceeds a certain threshold, the offense may be treated as a felony.
  • New York Penal Law Section 190.05: New York deems it a misdemeanor to issue a bad check with the knowledge of insufficient funds or credit.

Elements of the Offense

This crime occurs when a person knowingly writes or delivers a check while being aware that there are insufficient funds in their account to cover it, and with the intention to defraud the recipient. To prosecute this offense effectively, there are key elements that must be proven: the issuance of the check, the knowledge of insufficient funds, and the intent to defraud. Each of these components plays a crucial role in differentiating an innocent mistake from a deliberate act of fraud.

Issuance of a Check

Issuing a check serves as the foundational act in the crime of writing a worthless check. This occurs when the defendant writes or delivers a check, effectively initiating a financial transaction. The act of issuance is relatively straightforward to establish, as it involves the physical or electronic creation and delivery of the check. The document itself serves as a promise of payment, representing the drawer’s commitment to pay the stated amount. Therefore, the mere action of writing and handing over or sending the check constitutes the initial step in fulfilling the elements of this offense. This action sets the stage for potential fraud if the other elements of the crime are met.

Knowledge of Insufficient Funds

A critical component of this offense is the defendant’s state of mind regarding the funds available in their account. At the time the check was issued, the defendant must have known that there were insufficient funds in the account to cover the amount. This element moves the act beyond a mere oversight or mistake into the realm of intentional deception. Establishing this knowledge can be challenging and often relies on circumstantial evidence, such as a history of overdrawn accounts or previous bounced checks. The prosecution must demonstrate that at the crucial moment of issuing the check, the defendant was aware, or should have reasonably been aware, that their account lacked the necessary funds to honor the check.

Intent to Defraud

Finally, the prosecution must prove the defendant’s intent to deceive or defraud the recipient of the check. This element is what separates a mere financial misstep from a criminal act. The intent to defraud implies a deliberate and malicious attempt to trick or mislead the check’s recipient. It’s not enough for the account to be overdrawn; there must be evidence suggesting that the defendant intended to use the worthless check as a tool of deception. This could be inferred from repeated incidents, deceptive behaviors surrounding the transaction, or other actions indicating a pattern of dishonesty. Proving intent can be complex and often involves delving into the defendant’s actions and statements surrounding the issuance of the check.

Potential Defenses

Defendants may assert various defenses, such as lack of intent to defraud or that they reasonably expected sufficient funds to be available in the account by the time of check clearance.

Penalties and Consequences

Penalties for writing worthless checks can vary widely depending on the jurisdiction and the amount involved. They may include fines, restitution, community service, or imprisonment. Some states impose harsher penalties for repeat offenders or for checks of higher amounts.

Impact on Individuals and Businesses

The offense of writing worthless checks not only affects individual victims but can also have broader implications for businesses and financial institutions. It erodes trust in financial transactions and can lead to increased scrutiny and protective measures, potentially hindering the efficiency of commerce.


Writing worthless checks is a criminal offense taken seriously by the legal system due to its potential to defraud individuals and destabilize financial trust. While specific statutes and penalties may vary, the core elements of the offense remain consistent across jurisdictions. It’s essential for individuals to understand the legal implications of writing checks without sufficient funds, as this act can lead to significant legal consequences and undermine the integrity of financial transactions.

Modification History

File Created:  07/17/2018

Last Modified:  10/30/2023

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This work is licensed under an Open Educational Resource-Quality Master Source (OER-QMS) License.

Open Education Resource--Quality Master Source License


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