Embezzlement under California law is treated as a type of property theft. It happens when a person who was entrusted to manage or monitor another person’s property or money steals it for their own personal gain. The key from a legal perspective is the defendant had the legal access to the property or money but not actual legal ownership. Taking the property or money of another person for your own gain is stealing. When this is combined with violating a position of trust, this is defined as embezzlement.
Embezzlement in California can happen in many circumstances. For instance, a bank teller has the legal access to a client’s money and is entrusted to do transactions with the funds. But if some of that money is taken for the teller’s own personal use, that is embezzlement. Companies in California have also been found to embezzle money, and even family members caring for a loved one have been known to engage in embezzlement.
If you have misappropriated property or money in the state of California, you can be convicted of embezzlement. Most of these cases will be tried at the state level, so the California Penal Code will be followed. However, note that embezzlement can be tried as either a misdemeanor or felony, depending upon how much money or property is at stake.
The key factor in convicting someone of embezzlement in California is that you knowingly took someone else’s money or property for your personal gain. Also, embezzlement cases in California are taken very seriously because not only is this a form of theft; you also violated a position of trust.
Embezzlement cases come in a variety of forms. A bank teller who has legal access to a client’s money may take some of that money for her own purposes. Or, a county treasurer, an elected official, takes some taxpayer funds from a government account and spends it on himself. Companies also can be found guilty of embezzling funds, and so can family members caring for a loved one.
California Embezzlement Conviction
For the prosecutor to get a conviction against you for embezzlement, the following items must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt:
- You the defendant had a relationship with the owner of the property.
- You were entrusted with the money or property in question.
- You transferred the money or property to yourself for your own benefit and personal use.
- You had the intent to deprive the property owner of their property by taking it as your own.
Most California embezzlement cases are revealed because of an audit of the company books, whistleblowers or simple good luck. Employees who handle accounting and money for businesses are normally the suspects in embezzlement cases. Some of the most common types of employee profiles in embezzlement cases are:
- A stressed out or disgruntled employee
- Employee who is experiencing financial difficulties
- Employees with a drug or alcohol problem
- Employee who has a gambling problem
- Employee who lives beyond their means
- Employees who do not take vacations
- Generally living life on the edge
California Laws and Penalties
In this state, embezzlement is punished depending upon the value of the assets misappropriated; this is according to CA Penal Code 514. Higher penalties can apply to crimes with aggravating factors:
Property Worth $950 or Less – Petty Theft
This is a misdemeanor, and the defendant can receive a jail term of up to six months and be fined up to $1000.
Property Worth More Than $950 – Grand Theft
Property embezzled worth more than $950 can get you a jail sentence of up to a year, which is a misdemeanor. You also can be sentenced to up to three years in prison in such a case, according to CA Penal Code 484.
Note that embezzling any type of public funds in California is a felony. If you are convicted of embezzling these types of funds, you may get more prison time or fines, and you will probably have to pay back the stolen property. You also will never be eligible again for any job or office in state or local government.
Embezzlement Enhancement Penalties
In addition to the penalties that are applicable to the property that was embezzled, the judge has the authority to add prison time, extra fines, or both to an embezzlement conviction for any crime that has aggravating factors.
For example a defendant who is convicted during the same trial of two + felonies that involve embezzlement or fraud, which resulted in a loss to another party of more than $100,000, may earn a ‘white collar crime enhancement’ for punishment. This enhancement may add up to five additional years of prison time to your sentence, as well as fines, prison and any probation that was incurred for the felonies.
Further, a person who cares for a dependent or elderly person is seen under California laws to be in a position of trust. For example, a person caring for an elderly relative, a person who has physical or mental disabilities or someone who lives in a nursing home or assisted care facility. The state considers embezzlement from one of these dependent types of people to be an aggravating factor when it comes to sentencing.
Bail for Fraud and Embezzlement Cases in California
In the past, courts would set bail against a defendant in an embezzlement or fraud case equal to the amount that was alleged to have been stolen. Thus, if you had no criminal record and were alleged to have stolen $100,000, your bail would be set at $100,000. The law in California however has changed to allow for lower bail amounts in major embezzlement cases. If you are arrested for embezzlement in California, it is wise to seek experienced counsel who may be able to get bail reduced or even get you released on your own recognizance. This issue can be especially important for people who are awaiting trial in jail and have never been incarcerated before.
If you can make bail, even if it is for over $100,000, it is common for prosecutors to fight the posting of the bail by filing an ex parte motion. This motion examines the source of the bail money closely. Usually, posting such a large amount of bail will be challenged by the district attorney. So you must show the funds are coming from a legal source, and certainly not from the funds that were allegedly embezzled. It is common for defendants to get their bail money from real estate property that they own; you will need to provide the court with financial documents proving the legal source of these real estate funds.
Legal Defenses to Embezzlement Charges in California
Embezzlement charges in this state can be frightening and confusing. Some of the possible defenses to an embezzlement charge are:
- You thought in good faith that you had a legal right to the property.
- You did not have criminal intent.
- You have been falsely accused of embezzlement.
An experienced embezzlement defense attorney commonly will argue that you thought you were handling the property in question within the legal scope of your job duties. You cannot be convicted in California of embezzlement if you thought you were in possession of the property legally. This is related to another defense that argues you did not intend to use the property in question for your own benefit and to deprive the owner of use of the property. These defenses attack the embezzlement charge at its core, so you can in some cases get charges against you dismissed with a strong attorney.
Statute of Limitations
According to California law, there is no statute of limitations for crimes that involve the embezzlement of public funds. There also is no statute of limitations for any capital offense that carry a life sentence without parole.
CA Embezzlement Cases
- Ex-California Firefighter Facing Sentence for $300k Embezzlement – A year after being accused of embezzling nearly $300,000 from a firefighters union, a Lodi, California firefighter and union treasurer pleaded guilty, and is set to be sentenced for his crime on March 20. He still needs to pay back $150,000 of the missing money and he could receive up to three years in prison, with an additional year for enhancements.
- Beaumont, CA Officials Plead Guilty in $43 Million Embezzlement Case – Four ex-Beaumont CA officials pleaded guilty last week for their roles in a $43 million embezzlement scheme that involved several officials from the city. They were ordered to pay $8 million in restitution and were put on probation.
- Pastor Accused of Embezzlement in Pasadena – A Pomona CA preacher has been accused of embezzling money from Pasadena City Hall. He has since been stripped of his parsonage. Wooten has been accused of embezzling more than $6 million from a fund in the public works department. The scandal allegedly went on for years.
- Bra-Stuffing Embezzler in CA Sentenced to Five Years – A former accountant in a Los Angeles school district was caught stuffing money into her bra and walking out of the building. She pleaded guilty to the charges, and was convicted of stealing almost $2 million from the Rilato Unified School District. She was an accountant for the nutrition services department, and was arrested in 2013 on charges of grand theft, embezzlement and burglary.
- Tulare County CA Priest Charged With Embezzlement – A priest from St. Rita’s Catholic Church in Tulare County CA is being charged with embezzlement. Reverand Ignacio Villafan was removed from his role in 2012 after several financial discrepancies were discovered. Dicoces officials were not certain how the fraud occurred; all churches in the district have an internal financial reporting and monitoring protocol to detect any potential financial misconduct.