An embezzlement crime in California includes where a person fraudulently misuses money that has been entrusted to them for their benefit. The offense involves instances where a person has abused the trust given to them to control specific property or money.
California laws prescribe significant jail time and fines for the offense of embezzlement. A person charged with embezzlement may be sentenced to up to 5 years in prison, or where aggravating circumstances exist, even longer. The high stakes involved in this crime mean a person charged must act proactively in securing competent legal defense at the start of the case.
If you have been arrested or charged with embezzlement in California, reach out to our experienced criminal and white-collar crime defense attorneys Rodney Diggs. California’s embezzlement cases can often be complex, and securing a positive outcome will depend on consulting with a skilled criminal law attorney.
Our accomplished attorneys have been representing California residents for years and can help you put up a staunch legal defense. Act quickly if you are being investigated or charged with embezzlement by contacting our California embezzlement attorneys today.
What amounts to embezzlement in California?
Embezzlement is regarded as both a property crime and a white-collar crime. Property crimes generally include every situation where a person unlawfully takes property belonging to another person, by whatever means. White-collar offenses are often unique; however, since they do not involve violence and are typically committed in corporate environments. The fact they occur in corporate environments is why embezzlement is also referred to as employee theft.
However, the offense of embezzlement covers more than just situations where an employee commits theft as work. Under California Penal Code 503, embezzlement is defined as “the fraudulent appropriation of property by a person to whom it has been entrusted.” As a result, the offense includes any situation where someone unlawfully takes property entrusted to them to use it solely for their benefit.
For instance, Steve works as a cashier at a mall and pockets some cash from his drawer because he needs to pay off a gambling debt. Steve can be charged with the offense of embezzlement. The offense will also apply if Shannon takes some cash from money put in her care by her mother because she wants to get a new phone for herself.
The offense is not only limited to where someone takes money that does not belong to them. It covers any property that someone unlawfully takes and fraudulently uses or converts for their benefit.
There are specific facts that the prosecutor must prove to obtain a conviction of embezzlement. These include:
- The owner of the property entrusted it to the defendant;
- The owner did so because they trusted the defendant;
- The defendant fraudulently used or converted the property for their benefit; and
- The defendant intended to deprive the owner of the use of that property.
In addition to these factors, phrases such as “entrusted,” “fraudulent use,” and “intent to deprive” have special legal meaning.
To secure a conviction for embezzlement, a prosecutor must show that a relationship of trust existed between the defendant and the property owner. It is not enough to only show that there was an employer-employee relationship. There must be concrete proof that the owner “entrusted” the defendant with the property. People v. Wooten (1996) 44 Cal.App.4th 1834.
A person acts fraudulently when they take undue advantage of another person or cause that person loss by breaching their trust, confidence, or a duty. In this case, “fraudulent use” includes where these factors are present. People v. Stein (1979) 94 Cal.App.3d 235.
Finally, a prosecutor must show that the defendant intended to deprive the owner of their property. It doesn’t matter if this intention was temporary or permanent. For instance, if Doug takes money out of the cash box at work, intending to keep it for himself, he has already committed embezzlement. In the same manner, it doesn’t matter if he was only borrowing the money for a while. His intention to return the property is immaterial, except if he returns it before being charged. People v. Sisuphan (2010) 181 Cal.App.4th 800.
Certain offenses may be charged along with, or that relate to embezzlement. These offenses have similar factors to embezzlement and may occur in the same chain of events, leading to embezzlement. Crimes related to embezzlement include:
- Misappropriation by a public officer: Embezzlement generally applies to private property. When a person misuses available funds they were responsible for, they may be charged with misappropriation of public funds under Penal Code 424. This crime may also amount to an offense under federal law.
- Burglary: When a person enters any residential or commercial building to commit a felony or theft, they may be charged with burglary. As a result, if someone enters into a place to commit embezzlement, a charge of burglary may also lie under Penal Code 459.
- Forgery: The offense of forgery is committed when a person signs someone else’s name, fakes another person’s handwriting or a seal, falsifies, or changes any legal document with a fraudulent intention. If a bank teller fakes a signature to secure the fraudulent use of funds entrusted to them, they may be charged with embezzlement and forgery.
Punishment for embezzlement in California
Embezzlement attracts stiff punishment in California, and it may be charged as grand theft or petty theft. The resulting consequences depend on the value and type of property embezzled.
- If the offense involves property worth $950 or less, it is treated as petty theft and charged as a misdemeanor. The offense is punishable with a jail term of up to 6 months or a $1,000 fine or both.
- If the offense involves property worth less than $50, the prosecutor may decide to charge the defendant for a simple infraction instead. Where this happens, the maximum punishment will be a fine of $250.
- However, the consequences are significantly stiffer when embezzlement is treated as grand theft. This will be the case when the property involved is worth more than $950, or if it was an automobile or a gun. In this case, the offense may be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on the prosecutor’s discretion. As a misdemeanor, the offense attracts imprisonment in a county jail for up to 1 year. As a felony, the defendant may spend up to 3 years in state jail.
There are also aggravating factors that may lead to increased punishment. For instance, if the amount embezzled exceeds $65,000, an extra year may be added to any prison sentence imposed. Also, a defendant who commits two or more felonies involving fraud or embezzlement may be sentenced to an additional five years in jail if the total property involved exceeds $100,000. Cal Pen. Code § 186.11.
Enhanced punishment may also be imposed where the victim was an elder or a dependent person placed in the defendant’s care.
Other consequences of being convicted of embezzlement
Like most criminal convictions in the United States, being convicted of embezzlement can carry far-reaching consequences. These consequences can often affect a person’s ability to secure decent accommodation, work in specific jobs, or enjoy certain civil privileges.
Also, if the person convicted was a professional association member, they may be stripped of membership and denied entry for a specified period. Apart from these, other consequences of being convicted of embezzlement include:
- Immigration: Under United States immigration law, a person convicted of certain offenses may be deported from the country or denied admission into the United States. Under the Immigration and Nationality Act 237(a)(2)(A), the categories of offenses that may result in deportation or non-admission include aggravated felonies. This means a person charged with embezzlement had aggravating factors that may face immigration difficulties.
- Gun rights: California law prevents convicted felons from buying or keeping a gun in the state. This means a person convicted of grand theft embezzlement may lose the right to purchase or own a firearm.
- Public office: A person convicted of misappropriating public funds in California may also be prevented from running for public office in the future.
Are there defenses to a charge of embezzlement?
While embezzlement carries severe penalties, an experienced California embezzlement lawyer can assert certain defenses to avoid conviction. Depending on your case’s circumstances, a skillful attorney may be able to secure reduced charges, have the case dismissed, or win at trial on your behalf.
At Ivie McNeill Wyatt Purcell & Rodney Diggs, our criminal and white-collar defense attorneys can explore and assert several defenses on your behalf, including:
- Claim of Right: California law includes an exception for a person who genuinely believes they have a right to the property they are accused of embezzling. Our attorneys can help show the court that you thought in good faith that you had a right to the property in question and only took the property on that basis. In this circumstance, the defense may succeed, even if the belief was mistaken or unreasonable considering the fact. People v. Stewart (1976) 16 Cal.3d 133. So long as you genuinely believe you had a right to the money, we can assert this defense in your favor.
- No intent to permanently deprive: It is a critical component of embezzlement’s offense to show the defendant intended to deprive the owner of his property. As a result, it is a defense to show no such intent on the part of the defendant. If you only took the property as a joke or to help the defendant secure it somewhere else, this defense may apply in your case.
- No fraudulent use: Our attorneys can also disprove fraudulent intent where there was no intention to cause a loss by breaching a duty, trust, or confidence. Also, if there was no intention to take undue advantage of the owner and no undue advantage was taken, this defense may succeed. This may also include situations where the defendant had no intention to use the money for themselves or used it for the property owner. For instance, Esmeralda works as a nanny for a family who gives her money to buy groceries weekly. She takes that money to purchase the family a flower vase she saw at the mall. Esmeralda cannot be charged with embezzlement.
There are several other defenses that our attorneys may explore in your favor. However, putting up a successful defense depends on contacting a skilled white-collar crime attorney as soon as an investigation begins or an arrest happens.
Our California criminal and white-collar defense attorneys can help.
Being charged with a crime in California can be a scary experience. The criminal justice process can be very complex and can feel overwhelming. However, it is possible to secure a favorable outcome by immediately contacting one of the California criminal and white-collar defense attorneys at Ivie McNeill Wyatt Purcell & Rodney Diggs.
If you have been charged with embezzlement in California, consult with a competent attorney today.