Embezzlement is a kind of property theft. It occurs when someone who was entrusted to manage or monitor someone else’s money or property steals all or part of that money or property for the defendant’s personal gain. The key is that the defendant had legal access to another’s money or property, but not legal ownership of it. Taking the money or property for the defendant’s own gain is stealing; when combined with the fact that this stealing was also a violation of a special position of trust, you have the unique crime of embezzlement.
Embezzlement can occur in a variety of circumstances. For example, a bank teller has legal access to client money, and is trusted to engage in transactions involving that money. However, taking or using some (or all) of the money for the teller’s own purposes would be embezzlement. Companies can also embezzle funds, as can family members caring for a relative, professionals like lawyers or board members, or anyone in a position of trust with regard to someone else’s money or property.
For more information about embezzlement, see Embezzlement: Penalties and Sentences.
How Embezzlement Is Punished in California
In California, embezzlement is punished according to the type or value of the property, or the amount of money stolen. (Ca. Penal Code § 514.) Increased penalties may apply to crimes that include aggravating factors (explained below).
Property worth less than $950 (petty theft)
Embezzlement of property worth less than $950 is a misdemeanor, subjecting a defendant to a possible jail sentence of six months or less, and a fine of up to $1,000. However, if the property is worth less than $50, the prosecutor may choose to charge the offense as an infraction (not available to defendants with any prior theft or theft-related convictions). Infractions carry a penalty of a fine up to $250.
Property worth more than $950 (grand theft)
Embezzlement of property, money, or services, and many enumerated items, worth more than $950 is grand theft. A conviction carries a jail sentence of up to one year (a misdemeanor). But state prison time of 16 months, 2, or 3 years is also possible for felony grand theft, for enumerated items.
(Ca. Penal Code §§ 484 to 502.9.)
Embezzlement of Public Money
Embezzling public money is a felony in California. A defendant convicted of embezzling public money may be subject to increased fines and penalties (including repayment of the stolen property or funds, and between two and four years in prison), and will be permanently ineligible for any position in state or local government. (13 Cal Pen.Code § 514.)
Increased Penalties for Aggravating Factors
In addition to the penalties applicable to the type or property embezzled, the judge will add extra fines, prison time, or both to convictions for crimes that involve so-called "aggravating factors," described next.
Aggravated white collar crime enhancement
A defendant convicted during the same criminal trial of two or more felonies involving fraud or embezzlement, which in combination resulted in loss to another person of more than $100,000, will be subject to a “white collar crime enhancement” for punishment purposes. The enhancement adds up to five years of prison time to the defendant’s sentence (in addition to the fines, prison time, and any probation incurred for the felony convictions). (Cal Pen. Code § 186.11.)
Elder or dependent persons
A person caring for a “elder or dependent person" is in a special position of trust. Examples include (but are not limited to) someone caring for an elderly relative, a person with mental or physical disabilities, or someone residing in an assisted living facility.
California law considers embezzlement from an elder or dependent person an aggravating factor for sentencing purposes, and imposes increased penalties for these crimes. (Cal Pen. Code § 515.)
An Important Note on Local Legal Representation
If you have been charged with a property theft or embezzlement-related offense, consult an experienced criminal defense attorney. While the penalties and consequences of property theft charges are governed by statutory law, only a local criminal defense attorney can tell you how cases like yours tend to be handled by prosecutors and judges in your courthouse. An experienced lawyer can also evaluate the strength of the evidence against you, advise you as to possible alternatives to criminal punishment, such as paying back the money involved, along with court fees and other costs, or some other alternative that your judge might consider.