What is Theft by Embezzlement in California?
In California, theft by embezzlement is defined as taking property illegally only after that property has been entrusted to the defendant by the victim. It is distinct from other types of theft, which may be characterized as opportunistic theft or theft without knowing the victim at all.
The Definition of Theft by Embezzlement
According to Penal Code Section 503 PC, theft by embezzlement is theft of property when the original owner of the property trusted the accused, and the accused knowingly stole the property with the intent to benefit from it.
Examples of Theft by Embezzlement
- An employee of a restaurant takes money out of the cash register. In this case, the company both implicitly and explicitly trusts the employee to safeguard the money and not take it for their own use
- A son takes money from his parents' checking account after they agree to loan him a small amount. He takes a much larger amount once he gains access to their bank account and attempts to flee
- A businessman is offered a company credit card for a business trip. The implicit and explicit understanding is that it will be used for necessary but frugal expenses. Instead, the businessman spends thousands of dollars on frivolous purchases and luxuries, costing the company
- A CEO lies to shareholders about his company's activities and gains when the company is actually financially sinking. He earns a bonus at the end of the quarter, but the shareholders lose millions when the company finally goes under
Proving Theft by Embezzlement in California
Prosecutors must undertake multiple steps to prove theft by embezzlement in California, especially because they must prove fraudulence. For an action to be fraudulent, a person must:
- take undue advantage of another person or
- cause a loss of property or money to that person by
- breaching confidence, trust, duty, promise, or other agreement
In layman's terms, a fraudulent action only occurs when lying or misleading plays a part. For instance, if someone handed a defendant a $20 bill without a word, and that defendant took the $20 bill and spent it on something, they would not be committing a fraudulent action. Yet if that same defendant took the $20 bill only after promising to not spend it, then spent it anyway, they would have acted fraudulently.
According to Penal Code Section 503 PC, for the People to prove that the defendant is guilty of theft by embezzlement, they must:
- prove that the owner of the stolen property/money entrusted that property to the defendant in the first place. If the defendant found that property, it is not theft by embezzlement (though it may be another type of theft depending on the circumstances)
- prove that the owner entrusted the property to the defendant out of a sense of trust
- prove that the defendant fraudulently used that property for their own benefit
- prove that the defendant use the property with the explicit intention or understanding that doing so would prevent the owner from using it
As you can see, proving theft by embezzlement is no small task. Skillful California defense attorneys can make the most of this and craft an effective defense for the accused by poking holes in the prosecutor's arguments.
Penalties for Theft by Embezzlement
Embezzlement penalties can vary depending on whether it is classified as petty theft or grand theft.
The embezzlement is classified as petty theft (outlined by Penal Code 488 PC) if the property was:
- not an automobile or firearm
- worth $950 or less
Petty theft is always classified as a misdemeanor.
The embezzlement is classified as grand theft (outlined by Penal Code 487 PC) if the property was:
- an automobile
- a firearm
- or worth more than $950
In the event that the embezzlement is charged as grand theft, the court may charge the crime as a misdemeanor or felony.
Misdemeanor embezzlement penalties include:
- (petty theft) up to six months in county jail
- (grand theft) up to one year in county jail
Felony embezzlement penalties include:
- up to three years in jail
Furthermore, if the embezzled amount exceeds $3,200,000, the court may add an additional four years to the defendant's sentence.
Additional penalties may also apply based on other circumstances. For example, if the defendant is an immigrant, they may face deportation or be unable to receive citizenship. If the defendant owns a gun, they may have their right to own a firearm revoked, especially if the embezzlement charges deal with gun theft.
Theft by Embezzlement Defenses
Embezzlement charges may be opposed through skillful legal defenses. There are three main strategies that the defense attorney might employ.
Fraudulent Use Did Not Occur
If the defendant didn't take advantage of the other person or breach any type of confidence (trust) or duty, they did not act fraudulently and thus, did not embezzle. It can be difficult to prove verbal agreements in court, so a defense attorney might show that there's no evidence that the accused agreed to return property given to them by their accuser.
Good Faith Belief of Right to Property
Sometimes, a skilled California defense lawyer can prove that the accused acted with the belief that they had a right to the property or money that was loaned to them. This is a tricky thing to prove for both sides of the case and often relies on witness testimony or circumstantial evidence. Fortunately, the court may rule in the defendant's favor even if their belief was mistaken.
An example: a waiter takes cash handed to them by a customer hurrying out the door. They believe it to be a tip for their services alone instead of payment for a meal. They did not embezzle because they did not intend to deprive their employer of the money.
No Intention to Deprive Further User
Remember, embezzlement can only be proven if the prosecutor shows that the defendant meant for the property to not be used by the victim ever again. However, if the property was lost after being transferred to the defendant by accident, it may be proven that deprivation was not intended.
For instance, someone might loan the defendant their car for the weekend. The defendant gets into an accident, totaling the vehicle. Embezzlement did not occur because they intended to return the car on the appropriate date.
Why Do I Need an Embezzlement Defense Attorney?
An embezzlement defense attorney can help you create an ironclad case that could results in your charges being dropped. No one wants to be convicted of theft by embezzlement, especially since it is classified as a "crime of moral turpitude." Contact the Law Offices of Peter James Chambers today for a free consultation!