Bribery Charges and Defenses

Bribery and public corruption cases often make headlines. Local mayor indicted for accepting trips and cash from city contractor! Judge dismissed for soliciting campaign contributions in exchange for favors! Police officer under federal investigation for taking bribes from drug dealers! But what exactly is bribery, and what are the consequences if a person is charged with bribery?

Bribery of Public Officials

Bribery most often refers to bribery of public officials, the giving of money (or something else of value) in exchange for a public official acting in a way that benefits the defendant. All states have laws against bribing public officials in order to weed out public corruption. There are also federal laws against bribery. Traditionally, bribery was limited to judges who took money in exchange for ruling a certain way. Over time, bribery statutes have broadened. While in the past some states bribery laws only applied to public employees, nowadays, any public official – even one who serves as a volunteer – can usually be considered a public official for purposes of bribery.

Today, a person commits the crime of bribery by giving or offering a public official or public employee something of value in return for some official action (or in exchange for the public official not doing something he or she is legally obligated to do), benefitting the defendant. Most bribery laws target the giver of the bribe, but it is also illegal for a public official to accept or solicit anything of value in exchange for a particular action. The following are examples of bribery:

  • making payments to a county officer’s re-election campaign in exchange for a county business contracts
  • giving a health inspector money or alcohol to ignore a violation
  • offering to reward a legislator with an all expenses paid vacation if the legislator votes a certain way, or
  • a judge requesting a job for her child in exchange for ruling a particular way in an upcoming case.

Commercial Bribery

More then half of the states also have laws against commercial (private) bribery. There is no federal law against commercial bribery. Private bribery works the same way, except that instead of bribing a public official, the bribe is given to a private businessperson or employee in order to induce a person to act a certain way in a commercial transaction. For example, if a vendor makes a cash payment to a purchasing officer in order to ensure that the vendor’s bid is chosen over other bids, that would be considered commercial bribery.

Bribery of Foreign Officials

As more companies do business overseas, bribery of foreign officials is an increasing problem.

For more information, see Bribery of Foreign Officials. 


Generally, it is not a defense to bribery that the official did not actually have the power to act in the way the defendant desired. In some states, it is a defense to a charge of giving a bribe that the bribe recipient coerced or extorted the gift.


Criminal penalties. Bribery (both giving and receiving bribes) is usually a felony, punishable by a state prison term of one year or more. Commercial bribery often carries less severe penalties and may be a misdemeanor (in most states, misdemeanors are punishable by up to one year in county or local jail).

Other consequences. Public officials or employees who accept bribes may also be forced from office or from their jobs and may be ineligible to work for the government or serve in any elected or appointed position.

Obtaining Legal Assistance

If you are charged with bribery, you should talk to a criminal defense attorney who practices where you live. Bribery is usually a felony, and conviction can result in a state prison sentence. If you are a public official, you can also lose your job or position. An attorney can tell you what to expect in court and help you navigate the criminal justice system so that you can obtain the best possible outcome, such as a dismissal, favorable plea bargain, or lighter sentence than the maximum allowed.

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