California Embezzlement Charges & Penalties

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In California, embezzlement, which equates to fraudulent misappropriation, is charged in the same manner as theft, regardless of the type of theft committed. This is listed under the California Penal Code Section 503. Theft is a very serious crime in California, and even more so when it is committed from a position of trust. When people abuse or misuse their position to illegally take assets from others to further themselves, they face significant charges.

California Embezzlement Laws and Penalties

Under California law, theft is classified based on the value and nature of what was stolen. Punishments vary depending on the levels. As such:

  • Theft of property valued at $950 or less is typically considered petty theft, a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in county jail and a fine up to $1,000.
  • Theft of property valued over $950, or certain types of property regardless of value, is considered grand theft. Grand theft can be charged as either a misdemeanor or felony. As a misdemeanor, it is punishable by up to one year in county jail. As a felony, it can result in 16 months, two years, or three years in county jail.
  • Embezzlement by a public officer, trustee, or other specified persons involves higher penalties, often charged as a felony with potential state prison sentences ranging from two to four years.

California Embezzlement Defenses

There are numerous possible defenses to embezzlement. If the person is actually innocent of the crime they have been accused of, a lawyer will always try to determine that. In many cases, defense attorneys will try to determine that the money was embezzled for legitimate purposes, meaning it was not embezzled at all.

Alternatively, they can try to demonstrate that there is insufficient evidence to demonstrate guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Sometimes, they may also try to demonstrate lack of intent, although this is a very difficult defense in embezzlement cases and one that is notoriously difficult to prove due to the nature of the crime.

Finally, a criminal defense lawyer near me may try to demonstrate that the accused acted under duress. This means demonstrating that, had they not committed the embezzlement, they had genuine reason to believe they or someone else would come to significant harm. However, this means implicating a third party in the case.

California Embezzlement Statute of Limitations

In California, statutes of limitations are in place for the protection of defendants. It is believed that, the longer a time period passes between an action and prosecution, the more difficult it becomes to prove innocence. Similarly, California legislators believe that people should not be punished for behaviors long ago in the past. However, if the defendant is accused of a felony crime, their statute of limitations will be longer than if it were a misdemeanor offense.

Additionally, a statute of limitations can be tolled from the date of the offense. For instance, if a crime had not been uncovered or if the defendant is out of state for long periods of time, the clock may not start ticking or it may be tolled until the defendant can face charges. In the state, under California Penal Code Section 801, the statute of limitations for felony theft is three years, while for misdemeanors it is one year.

Most Famous California Embezzlement Cases

California has seen several high-profile embezzlement cases that have captured public attention due to the magnitude of the crimes and the individuals involved. These cases highlight the severity of embezzlement and the significant legal repercussions that can follow.

1. Kinde Durkee Case

Kinde Durkee, a prominent Democratic campaign treasurer, was convicted of embezzling over $7 million from various political campaign funds. Her actions affected numerous politicians, including Senator Dianne Feinstein. Durkee’s case was highly publicized due to her prominent role and the large sums involved. She was sentenced to over eight years in federal prison.

2. City of Bell Scandal

In one of the most notorious municipal fraud cases, several officials from the city of Bell were convicted of misappropriating public funds. The city manager, Robert Rizzo, embezzled millions of dollars through inflated salaries and fraudulent schemes. The scandal led to significant public outrage and numerous convictions. Rizzo was sentenced to 12 years in state prison.

3. Tom Petters Ponzi Scheme

While primarily based in Minnesota, Tom Petters’ Ponzi scheme had significant operations and victims in California. Petters embezzled billions of dollars from investors through fraudulent business deals. The case was notable for its scale and the high-profile nature of the fraud. Petters was sentenced to 50 years in federal prison.

4. LACERA Embezzlement Case

An employee of the Los Angeles County Employees Retirement Association (LACERA) was found guilty of embezzling over $4 million by manipulating pension fund accounts. The case highlighted vulnerabilities in the management of public pension funds. The defendant was sentenced to 14 years in state prison.

5. Los Angeles Dodgers Divorce Case

During the high-profile divorce case between Los Angeles Dodgers owners Frank and Jamie McCourt, it was revealed that significant sums of money had been embezzled from team funds for personal use. While not a criminal case, the embezzlement revelations led to significant legal battles and the eventual sale of the team.

6. PG&E Embezzlement Scandal

Several employees of Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) were charged with embezzling millions of dollars through fraudulent billing and contract schemes. The case drew considerable attention due to PG&E’s prominence and the impact on utility customers. The primary defendants received lengthy prison sentences.

The Role of a California Criminal Lawyer for Embezzlement

Embezzlement charges in California can lead to severe penalties, including hefty fines, imprisonment, and long-term reputational damage. The role of a California criminal lawyer is crucial in navigating these serious charges, ensuring the defendant’s rights are protected and building a robust defense strategy.

Case Evaluation and Evidence Review

A California criminal lawyer begins by thoroughly evaluating the case, scrutinizing the prosecution’s evidence, such as financial records and witness statements. By identifying weaknesses or inconsistencies in the evidence, the lawyer can formulate a strategic defense plan tailored to the specifics of the case.

Defense Strategy Development

Developing a customized defense strategy is a key responsibility of a California criminal lawyer. This might involve demonstrating a lack of intent to defraud, proving that the defendant had permission to use the funds, or showing that the accused was wrongly identified. The lawyer will also look for procedural errors during the investigation or prosecution that could lead to a dismissal of charges.

Negotiation and Trial Representation

An experienced California criminal lawyer engages in negotiations with the prosecution, seeking plea deals that could result in reduced charges or lighter sentences. If the case proceeds to trial, the lawyer provides vigorous representation, presenting evidence, cross-examining witnesses, and making compelling arguments to the jury.

In summary, a California criminal lawyer plays a vital role in defending against embezzlement charges, from initial case assessment to trial representation, ensuring the best possible outcome for the defendant.


  • California Penal Code Section 503: Embezzlement.
  • California Penal Code Section 801: Statute of Limitations.
  • “California Criminal Law: Cases and Problems” by Joseph Kennedy and John Easton, published by Thomson Reuters.
  • California Court System: Information on criminal cases and court procedures.
  • National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL): Information and resources on criminal defense.
  • California Legal Aid: Resources on fraud defense.