Bribery Charges and Defenses

Learn what makes something an illegal bribe and the possible penalties.

By , Attorney · UC Berkeley School of Law
Updated by Rebecca Pirius, Attorney · Mitchell Hamline School of Law
Updated 2/17/2023

Bribery cases often make headlines, because these charges seek to root out corruption, both private and public. Generally speaking, bribery involves some kind of quid pro quo—one person giving or offering to give something of value in exchange for another person acting in a certain way. The bribery cases that tend to make the news often involve public officials, judges, and big corporations.

What Is Bribery?

A person commits bribery by offering or giving money, a promise, or something of value in exchange for another person's agreement to use their position or authority to act in a certain way or influence an outcome. It's also bribery for a person to solicit or accept a quid pro quo in return for agreeing to take some action or influence an outcome.

A key element of bribery is that some corrupt intent is at play to gain a specific benefit, regardless of who has this corrupt intent—the person giving the bribe or the person accepting or soliciting a bribe. It's not necessary that money exchanged hands or that the desired result happened. The crime is complete once the promise is made or solicited.

Below 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 they vote yes or no on a bill
  • promising to rule on a court case in a particular way if one of the parties gives the judge's child a job
  • soliciting sexual favors as a quid pro quo for awarding a business contract to a vendor, or
  • agreeing to make certain calls in a game in exchange for drugs.

Is Bribery Illegal?

Yes, bribery is illegal. Bribery can be a crime under federal or state law, depending on who and what is involved. Most states have several types of bribery charges, such as bribery of public officials, witnesses, jurors, corporations, and sports officials.

Bribery of Public Officials

Bribery of public officials refers to the giving of money or something else of value in exchange for a public official acting in a certain way (say awarding a project to someone) or not acting in a way (such as not conducting a required investigation) that benefits the defendant. A public official who solicits or accepts a bribe also commits bribery.

The definition of a public official will depend on the exact state or federal statute, but it tends to be broadly defined to include not just elected and appointed officials and judges but also public employees, school employees, agency employees, or anyone working on a government-funded project.

Bribery of Witnesses or Jurors

Many states also make it a crime to bribe a witness or juror. Under these laws, bribery involves giving or soliciting something of value in exchange for voting in a specific way, testifying in a specific manner, not testifying, or not appearing in a proceeding.

Bribery of Arbitrators, Referees, and Sport Officials

Some states make it a crime to bribe any type of arbitrator, referee, umpire, or official who makes decisions regarding controversies on the playing field or on legal issues. A state might also extend these crimes to sports or race participants who agree to change their performance in exchange for something of value.

Commercial Bribery

More than half of the states have laws against commercial (private) bribery. Typically, in commercial bribery cases, the bribe is given to a private businessperson or employee in order to induce a certain transaction or gain some advantage in a business decision. 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, this payment would be considered commercial bribery.

Bribery of Foreign Officials

The Federal Corrupt Practices Act makes it a federal crime for companies or individuals to bribe foreign officials or political actors in order to influence some official act or improperly gain an advantage in business or politics.

Is It Bribery to Give Someone a Gift?

It's not bribery to give someone a gift if there's no understanding or offer to get something in return. To commit bribery, the person must give the gift with the specific intent of getting some benefit. Without this corrupt intent, no crime has occurred. So if you give a coach a gift in hopes that your kid will make the team, you've likely violated a sport's conduct rule but haven't committed a crime. Generally speaking, having vague expectations or hopes of a quid quo pro isn't enough to make a gift or payment a bribe.

What Are Defenses to Bribery Charges?

In some states, it's a defense to a charge of giving a bribe that the bribe recipient coerced the gift. A defendant might also claim that they never intended to receive a quid pro quo and, thus, lacked the intent required to commit a crime.

However, it's not a defense to bribery that:

  • the person receiving the bribe did not have the power to act in the way the defendant desired
  • the person receiving or offering the bribe never intended to make good on their promise or agreement, or
  • the person receiving the bribe would have made the same decision or acted the same way without the bribe.

What Are the Penalties for Bribery Crimes?

Bribery penalties vary by state and will depend on the specific conduct involved. In many states, bribery (both giving and receiving bribes) is a felony if it involves public or appointed officials, judges, witnesses, or jurors. Felonies carry prison terms of a year or more. Other types of bribery often carry less severe penalties and may be misdemeanors, punishable by up to a year in a local jail. A person convicted of federal bribery will face felony charges with penalties of up to 5 or 10 years in prison, along with steep fines.

Additional consequences may also apply, such as civil penalties or forfeiture of office or employment. For instance, a public official who accepts a bribe may have to give up their current position and forfeit future eligibility for office or to work in a government position.

Obtaining Legal Assistance

If you're charged with bribery, talk to a criminal defense attorney who practices where you live. Many attorneys focus their practice in state court. So if you're charged with federal bribery, you'll want to find an attorney who practices in federal court. Your 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.

(Cal. Penal Code §§ 67 to 77, 92 to 100, 639, 639a; 15 U.S.C. §§ 78dd-1, 78dd-2, 78dd-3; 18 U.S.C. § 666 (2022).)

Talk to a Defense attorney
We've helped 95 clients find attorneys today.
There was a problem with the submission. Please refresh the page and try again
Full Name is required
Email is required
Please enter a valid Email
Phone Number is required
Please enter a valid Phone Number
Zip Code is required
Please add a valid Zip Code
Please enter a valid Case Description
Description is required

How It Works

  1. Briefly tell us about your case
  2. Provide your contact information
  3. Choose attorneys to contact you