California Penal Code section 503 defines "embezzlement" as the taking of property belonging to another after that person/entity has entrusted it to your care. It is also required, to be considered embezzlement, that you fraudulently appropriated funds or assets taken from the rightful owner.
Although embezzlement has a reputation, in the public mind, as being a "white collar crime," there are many "ordinary people" who face these allegations. It is not always business executives accused of emptying the bank accounts of large corporations, but often, embezzlement charges involve employees of small businesses accused of taking relatively small sums.
While intent to deprive the owner of the taken property is an essential element of embezzlement, it does not matter for how long the property was seized nor if the taker intended to return it. "Borrowing" is not a valid legal defense against embezzlement allegations.
Examples of Embezzlement
Some scenarios that highlight common types of embezzlement cases are as follows:
- An valet parking worker at an airport "lends" a car placed in his care to a friend, who then "borrows" it to drive to a job interview.
- An elderly man entrusts his home health care aide with hundreds of dollars cash to deposit into his bank account, but the aide keeps the funds.
- A church treasurer takes $1,000 from his church's checking account for personal usage, hoping it won't be missed.
Possible Punishments for Embezzlement
Embezzlement is handled under California's theft laws, being considered a form of either grand or petty theft. Whether the theft be considered grand or petty will depend upon the value and type of property taken.
Petty theft embezzlement applies when the value of the money and/or goods embezzled $950 or less. It is a misdemeanor charge punishable by up to 6 months in the county jail, probation, or a maximum $1,000 fine.
Grand theft embezzlement is a "wobbler" that can be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on the value involved and the details of the case. If the amount stolen is over $950, even if taken in installments over a 12 month period, the theft is grand. If an automobile or firearm was taken, it is automatically grand theft.
Misdemeanor grand theft embezzlement carries a sentence of up to one year in the county jail and fine of up to $1,000. If charged as a felony, the sentence is 16 months to three years in state prison and a fine as high as $10,000. Firearm embezzlement is automatically a felony.
If the sum stolen is extremely high, the punishment will be enhanced as follows:
- For property valued at $65,000, one extra year in state prison
- For taking $200,000, two extra years in prison
- For $1.3 million, three extra years
- For $3.2 million, four extra years
Aggravating and Mitigating Factors
If the victim was an elderly person or someone with a mental or physical handicap, the judge is likely to give out a harsher sentence. If, on the other hand, the defendant voluntarily returned the funds taken before ever even being charged with embezzlement, the judge may be willing to be more lenient than usual.
What the Prosecution Must Prove
It is not as simple to prove embezzlement as it might at first appear. First of all, embezzlement differs from mere theft in that a relationship of trust both existed and was violated. An employee-employer relation does not automatically turn theft into embezzlement, for the level of trust required is relatively high.
For example, an employee entrusted with keys to a safe who robs it of its contents would be embezzling. A janitor who happened to be in the room while the safe was accidentally left open, however, would probably be charged only with theft.
It must be demonstrated that the owner trusted you with the property in question, not simply that you worked for him/her. Examples of relationships of trust that make embezzlement possible are: a valet parking worker entrusted with a car, an auto mechanic, and a company trustee/board member with access to the business' funds and assets.
The prosecutor must also prove that the defendant fraudulently took the property for his own benefit, inflicting loss on the owner. It is possible that an unauthorized usage was thought to benefit the owner and did not benefit the defendant. In that case, it would be misconduct but not embezzlement.
Finally, it must be shown that there was intent to deprive the owner of his property or its use. The time-length of this deprivation does not matter, and the intent to return the property later is not relevant.
Defending Against Embezzlement Charges
Being convicted of embezzlement can have major negative impacts on your professional and personal life. The consequences can haunt you for life, and thus, it is imperative to hire a top-tier defense attorney who can work to get the allegations reduced or dismissed. Or, if all else fails, a good attorney can still often secure lighter sentencing.
Possible defense strategies include:
- You believed with good reason that you had a right to take/use the property in question. You acted in good faith, not concealing your actions. You did not take the money with intent to embezzle nor to satisfy a debt the property owner owed you. An example might be a misappropriation of funds when the terms of a will were confusing and unclear.
- You did not intend to deprive the owner of the property, either temporarily or permanently. You simply made an error. An accidental misappropriation is not embezzlement.
- The charges are trumped up and have no truth in them whatsoever. Often, a former friend or employer will make false accusations of embezzlement if they are holding onto a grudge. This is especially likely if they find themselves in the midst of pressing financial difficulties.
Other offenses that often have close connection with embezzlement charges are as follows:
- Forgery (PC 470), which consists of creating or altering documents for the purpose of committing fraud. For example, if you sign an employer's name on a check and use that check to steal money after being trusted with access to your employer's checkbook and bank account, it is both forgery and embezzlement. Forgery can be charged as a misdemeanor and get you up to one year in a county jail. It can also be charged as a felony and carry a state prison term of 16 months to 3 years.
- Burglary (PC 459) involves entering a building to commit theft or any other felony. Even if the location was your place of work, it is still considered burglary. If the building you entered was unoccupied, it is "2nd degree" burglary and a misdemeanor. If the building was inhabited, however, it is "1st degree" burglary, which is a felony.
- Various fraud statutes, covering such crimes as insurance, real estate, check, and mail fraud, are often associated with embezzlement. Fraud is frequently the tool used to enable the embezzlement of property.
Contact Us Today for a Top Embezzlement Defense Attorney
If you find yourself facing charges of embezzlement in Los Angeles, the expert criminal defense team at the Law Offices of Jeff Voll have the intricate knowledge of the law necessary to win your case. We are meticulous in our investigations and relentless in our pursuit of your best interests. Many of our defense attorneys were once prosecutors and know, therefore, how best to counter the prosecution's tactics. We know how to fight for and obtain the best possible outcome to your case. Contact us today at 323-467-6400 for a free legal consultation and quick access to an attorney with deep experience in defending against embezzlement charges.