Borrowing your older sibling's driver's license. Buying a fake at a sketchy online site. Photoshopping a copy of your passport.
College underclassmen do all these things to get their booze on, and very few think twice about the legal risks they carry in their wallets. Getting turned away from a bar isn't the worst fate you could suffer if a suspicious bouncer asks you what your zip code is.
We spoke to police officers and criminal defense attorneys who deal with fake ID cases to find out what exactly goes down when you get caught red-handed lying about your age. Here's what they said:
Bouncers may confiscate your fake ID and hand it off to the police.
Yes, really. Our previous interviews with bouncers and liquor store employees suggest this isn't a common thing, but it definitely happens.
"Sometimes we'll have police waiting outside the bar undercover," criminal defense attorney Brandon Davis told us. "The bouncer will just hand them IDs that are suspected fraudulent, and they'll take people into custody [right there]."
And while exaggerating your age to a bartender may seem like no big deal -- every underclassman does it, right? -- lying to the cops is a big no-no. Handing a police officer your fake ID and trying to pass it off as the real deal will never work out in your favor.
"Any cop all across the board doesn't like being lied to," reserve police officer and MTV News writer Craig Goldstein explained. "If you give [a cop] a fake ID, whether you get pulled over or caught at a liquor store, and they say, 'Is this yours?' and you keep lying, they're going to jam you up even more so."
People really do get arrested for fake IDs.
Feeling FOMO because you can't join your friends at a bar isn't the worst thing that could happen if a bouncer spots your fake. But arrests don't happen all the time, of course, so we asked Sgt. Adrian Acevedo, a police officer in New Jersey, just how frequently they occur.
"It usually happens during the first few months of the colleges coming back from their break [at] the beginning of their school year," he told us. "You'll get [arrests] happening quite often, could be once a week."
If you are arrested, you'll most likely be charged with a misdemeanor...
The exact charges vary by state, but in New York the most common one is criminal possession of a forged instrument in the third degree, which is a misdemeanor that could result in up to one year in county jail. Lawyers can sometimes negotiate an initial charge to get you a less severe violation, but this is never guaranteed.
"[Fake IDs are] basically always going to be charged as a misdemeanor [in California], but still the attorney may be able to get it reduced to an infraction," criminal defense attorney Daniel Perlman said.
...but using a fake ID is a felony in some states.
In some states -- Florida and Illinois, for example -- you can be charged with a full-on felony for showing a fake.
"[Police] will actually arrest [you] for a felony, as ridiculous as that sounds," criminal defense attorney Kate Mesic told us. She's handled fake ID cases from both the prosecution and defense sides. "Most people don't realize that, that it's actually a felony [in Florida]. Most of the kids think it's no big deal."
Don't freak out, though. Before you're charged, cops usually take into consideration what you were using the fake ID for.
"In Illinois [it can be a] class 4 felony for possession of a fraudulent ID," Davis explained. "However, that is very rare [for] a kid getting into a bar. [Police] usually don't take that aggressive of an action, but they can."
Keep in mind that being charged with something serious -- a misdemeanor, a felony -- isn't the same thing as being convicted of said crime.
"Without any prior issues, [conviction] would be very unlikely," Davis said.
You probably won't go to jail if you're a first-time offender.
Misdemeanor convictions can land you in jail for up to a year, while felonies can lead to several years of incarceration. But again, the circumstances surrounding the fake ID use definitely factor into sentencing decisions. Using a fake to get into a bar is very different from using it to impersonate someone else for financial gain.
"When [a fake ID is used] for the sole purpose of obtaining tobacco or booze, we understand that you're not doing it because you want to commit some bigger crime," Acevedo told us. "Usually first-time offense people don't get jail time, but you can be put on probation [or] lose your driver's license for up to two years [in New Jersey]."
That's right, you could lose your real driver's license for a year or more.
License suspension occurs in many states, even if you aren't actually arrested. In Illinois, for example, even though fake IDs can technically be charged as a felony, that's not what usually happens. Davis revealed that most of the time, the police will confiscate your fake, write up a report and send that report to the Secretary of State, who controls the DMV. Your real driver's license is then suspended for one year. Fines or community service may also be required depending on whether or not the cops cite additional charges on top of their initial report.
The driver's license suspension often applies in non-fake ID situations as well. Open container violations or just being a minor in possession of alcohol can leave you begging your friends for rides. And the consequences get way worse if you're a repeat offender.
"The second [offense in Illinois] would result in a license revocation," Davis explained. "It's an indefinite period without driving privileges. You have to go through a hearing with the Secretary of State, which would also require an alcohol and drug evaluation."
Creating a fake ID is wayyy worse than just using one.
Fake IDs typically set you back around $100 depending on the quality and quantity ordered at the time. You might be tempted to create your own instead of forking over your hard-earned cash to a rando who says they know a guy.
Save your Photoshop skills for your Facebook profile pic. If you make your own fake or make ones for your friends, you'll be charged with forgery, which is a much more serious offense than possession of a forged instrument.
"[In California] that's a felony charge for forgery of a state document," Perlman explained. "While it's unlikely that can result in a prison sentence ... a future employer would see [that charge] as one involving honesty."
Similarly, fake passports carry harsher consquences than fake licenses.
We mentioned this previously, but it's worth repeating here. Passports are federal documents, while driver's licenses are issued by individual states. If you're busted with a fake license, the legal consequences are confined to whatever state you got caught in, even if it isn't your home state. But if you use a fake passport, you could be prosecuted at the federal level.
"Federal prosecutions are worse because federal prosecutors generally have more attorneys and money to devote to each case ... your chances of winning a trial against a federal prosecution tend to be lower than in state court," criminal defense attorney Lance Fletcher told us.
Something will likely end up on your record, at least temporarily...
Even if you aren't arrested or charged with anything, driver's license suspension goes on your public record for the duration of the suspension. Afterwards, you can pay to have it taken off.
"Something's going to go on your record for some period of time," Davis said.
Several states have clauses within their legislature that allow fake ID cases to be dismissed without any major penalties if the fake was used for the sole purpose of obtaining alcohol or for entry into an age-restricted venue. In these situations, the defendant -- that's you, the kid who was busted -- has to meet the court's conditions, which typically involve alcohol education classes and community service, before the charges are dropped. Lawyers can help negotiate these specific terms, but again, nothing is guaranteed.
"If somebody is arrested, even if the charges are dropped, it will still show up on their record [in Florida]," Mesic told us. Sometimes records can be expunged, sometimes they can't be. It all depends on the circumstances and many times, whether or not it's granted is completely discretionary.
...which could negatively impact your ability to get a job. :(
If you aren't convicted -- and first-time offenders usually aren't -- you can answer "no" to an application's question, "Have you ever been convicted of a crime?" This doesn't mean your past is completely buried, however. If your license was suspended several years ago and you never took action to remove the suspension from your public record, an employer could find out. And if you are convicted, that charge will likely go on your permanent record and follow you around for the rest of your life.
"Any theft, forgery or fraud charge on someone's record is going to significantly compromise their ability to find employment," Perlman told us.
Borrowing your older friend's real ID can get you both into trouble.
In the same vein, lending out your ID to underage friends once you're over 21 can also land you in hot water. The specific legal repercussions again vary by state. Mesic explained to us that in Florida specifically, both of you could be charged with second degree misdemeanors or have your driver's licenses suspended.
The legal process is a total nightmare.
If you're arrested, the police will fingerprint you, take your mugshot, all that fun stuff you see go down on "Law & Order." Regardless of what you are or aren't charged with, you will likely need a lawyer's help to make negotiations and sort out court appearances, which occur over the course of several months.
"Generally [a] misdemeanor case [in New York] may see three to five court dates before it is resolved," Fletcher told us. "Simple cases can be resolved with as little as one or two court dates. Complex misdemeanors can last for up to 10 court dates or longer."
We won't even go into the massive fees all those legal meetings and sessions would amount to.
Even if you aren't busted, just getting a fake comes with significant risks.
If you don't have an older friend or sibling whom you can mooch a real ID off of, the process of finding or buying a fake is sketchy at best. Online manufacturers ask you for personal information, and giving out your real name, address, date of birth or social security number to a stranger across the world means someone could steal your identity IRL.
"If you give out your personal identifying information ... the person receiving it could use it in a way that you did not authorize or they could give it to a third party to make the ID," Fletcher told us. "This third party could then save it and use it for other customers."
Using someone else's name on your fake isn't a solution though, because that comes with just as big of a problem.
"If [you're] using a [fake ID] with someone else's name, there might be a warrant or something attached to that name [that] now you're going to take ownership of," Acevedo explained. "For example ... [if the name on your fake ID] has a warrant for murder, you're going to get brought in and be put in jail until they figure out it's not you. Murder is an extreme case ... but it happens all the time, especially when people [are making multiple] IDs with the same name."
Moral of the story? Fakes aren't as casual as your friends and even the media play them off to be. They come with big risks and even bigger legal consequences if you're caught. Know your state's specific laws governing the use of fake IDs. You might need that info someday -- though we hope you don't.