How Does the State of California Define ‘Embezzlement?’

Enacted in 1972, California Penal Code Section 503 defines embezzlement as the fraudulent appropriation of property by an individual to whom it has been entrusted. Put more simply; it is the theft or misuse of any property which had been entrusted to a second party by the property owner. The understanding of the law states that the property owner entrusted the individual with the proper care for the property or asset and that trust was violated for personal gain.

It is up to the prosecution to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused party intentionally misused the property for their personal benefit in an attempt to defraud the property owner. The accused, meanwhile, may attempt to prove that they had no intention of defrauding the other party of their property and that mistakes were made in the misuse of the property in question.

What Are Various Examples of Embezzlement?

Embezzlement is a ‘white collar crime’ and, as such, we tend to think of it as a crime charged to people who work in banks and skyscrapers which look down upon the rest of the city. However, white-collar crimes are not exclusive to millionaires and powerful corporations. A minimum wage employee working the register at a grocery store is just as capable of committing embezzlement as any millionaire banker. Most cases of embezzlement can be summed up as examples of workplace theft.

Examples of embezzlement include:

  • An employee working the register may skim store profits by pocketing some of the cash that passes between them and a customer. This is embezzlement.
  • A manager for a large company may be entrusted with the keys to their employees’ pension funds. If they misappropriate these funds for their own benefit, that is embezzlement.
  • An employee forging company checks to himself could be charged for embezzlement.
  • Double dipping is sometimes attempted when a guilty party believes that no one is keeping a close eye on the books. If they intentionally charge twice for the same service, that’s embezzlement.
  • Falsifying overtime to receive more money can be workplace theft.
  • If an employee for a business is entrusted with paying specific bills or depositing business earnings into a bank account but is skimming off the top, that’s embezzlement.
  • Many businesses and their employees are entrusted with a customer’s credit card numbers. If those cards are misused for the benefit of the employees, then that’s a crime.
  • Overbilling customers for work done can be charged as embezzlement. This is a slightly tricky matter, as a professional and their customer may disagree on the compensation a job deserves. However, if that professional intentionally comes up with false fees for their customer, then they may be guilty of a crime.
  • Pocketing charity or fundraiser money for one’s own personal use can be charged as a crime.
  • The theft of office supplies, workplace equipment, products, and raw materials from the workplace may be considered embezzlement. Most employers are willing to overlook their employees taking home a limited amount of office supplies. Still, some employees abuse their office’s casual nature and take home incredible amounts of workplace goods.

There are other additional examples as well. The California Penal Code refers to other offenses related to embezzlement, including bribery, burglary, embezzlement by a public officer in a role of authority and respect, extortion, forgery, knowingly being the recipient of stolen property, the misappropriation of public funds.

What Legal Options Does a Person Have if They’ve Been Accused of a White Collar Crime Like Embezzlement?

An individual charged with embezzlement may have several legal defenses that could help them avoid a conviction. And it must be remembered that the prosecution has the burden of proving that the accused intentionally meant to embezzle and defraud the victim of the crime.

Possible defenses for embezzlement may include:

  • False allegations.
  • Good faith belief in the right to possess and use the property as you saw fit.
  • Lacked the intent to embezzle.
  • No fraudulent acts were committed with the property.

In some cases, the misdeed may not rise to the level of a crime, but it still might cost a person their job. For example, the misuse of a company credit card for personal gain may be embezzlement. But if a manager gives their employee the company credit card for travel expenses, they may have reason to be angry at the employee if they opt to travel in luxury, but this is not likely to be a crime.

When is Embezzlement Charged as a Felony in California?

Depending on the facts of the case, an individual may be charged with felony or misdemeanor embezzlement. This is what’s known as a ‘wobbler’ in California – a crime that could be charged either one way or the other.

If the property that was misappropriated had a value of $950 or less, it would be charged as a misdemeanor. This crime comes with a maximum jail sentence of six months. There are additional fines as well.

If the embezzled property was valued over $950, it could be charged as either a felony or a misdemeanor depending on other relevant facts in the case. If convicted, the guilty party could serve three years in prison. If the amount stolen was valued over $65,000, another year could be added to the sentence. And for those guilty of embezzling over $3,200,000 in California, another additional four years would be added to the sentence.