California law defines bribery as offering, giving or taking something of value, with corrupt intent, in order unlawfully to influence a person in any public or official capacity. Bribery is typically prosecuted as a felony and is punishable by up to 4 years in jail or prison.
Bribery laws are codified in Penal Code Sections 67, 68, 85, 86, 92, 93, 137, 138, 165, and 641.3.
Penal Code 67 PC and Penal Code 68 PC are the California statutes that say bribery by or of an executive officer is a felony. “Executive officers” are government officials who use their discretion in performing job duties (for example, a law enforcement agency officer or district attorney).
- state legislators,
- members of city or county legislative bodies, and
- members of school district legislative bodies.
Penal Code 92 PC and Penal Code 93 PC are the California criminal laws that state that bribery by or of a judicial officer is a felony offense. A judicial officer includes judges, jurors, and any other person authorized to hear a legal matter.
Penal Code 165 PC is the California law that makes bribery by or of members of county boards of supervisors a crime. The statute also pertains to members of:
- common councils,
- county or city boards of trustees, and
- a public corporation’s board of trustees.
Penal Code 641.3 PC is the California statute that defines the crime of commercial bribery. The law states that it is an offense when an employee takes a bribe from a person in exchange for using his/her employment position for the benefit of the other party.
Examples of unlawful acts
- paying a few elected public servants $10,000 each for a “yes” vote on a particular official duty matter.
- handing an expert witness a blank check to falsify his/her testimony on DNA evidence.
- a private sector corporate executive accepting $25,000 from a certain media outlet in exchange for informing it of questionable regulatory policies of his/her employer.
People accused of bribery can challenge the allegation with a legal defense. Effective defenses that we often advise our clients on include:
The only exception to these rules is commercial bribery, which can be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony depending on the amount of the bribe involved.
Our California criminal defense attorneys will explain the following in this article:
- 1. What is the definition of bribery under California law?
- 2. Can an accused assert a defense in bribery cases?
- 3. What are the penalties for the crime of bribery?
- 4. Can a person get a bribery conviction expunged?
- 5. Are there related offenses?
1. What is the definition of bribery under California criminal law?
For purposes of this statute, something is a “bribe” if it is:
- an item of value or something of present or future value (or a promise to give such a thing such as a kickback or gratuity),
- given, offered, or taken with corrupt intent, and
- given, offered, or taken to unlawfully inﬂuence the person to whom it is given in any public or official capacity.1
As to number two above, a person acts with “corrupt intent” when he or she acts to wrongfully gain a ﬁnancial or another advantage for:
- herself, or
- someone else.2
Note that the above bribing laws apply to both sides of a transaction. That is, they apply to:
- a person who offers to bribe a public official or public office, and
- an official that takes a bribe.
Further, except in relation to certain penalties, it does not matter if an accused actually made or received a bribe. It is the thinking about the bribe, and the acting on it, that leads to guilt.3
Note too that California bribery laws do not require an exact quid pro quo (or something for something). The bribe can be in exchange for general favors as opposed to a specific favor.4
2. Can an accused assert a defense in bribery cases?
Criminal defense attorneys draw upon several legal strategies when defending against bribery charges. Some of the most common include showing that the accused:
- acted with no corrupt intent.
- was entrapped.
- was falsely accused.
2.1 No corrupt intent
Recall that bribery includes the element of “corrupt intent.” This means it is always a defense for the accused to show that he/she did not act with this aim.
This is a common defense when an accused is charged following an undercover police sting. The defense says that the defendant only committed a crime because a police officer lured or coaxed him/her into doing so. It is an acceptable defense provided that the accused shows he/she only committed the crime because of the entrapment.5
2.3 Falsely accused
It is not uncommon for people to falsely accuse others of bribery crimes. Sometimes false allegations are made out of:
- jealously, or
A defendant, then, can assert as a defense that he/she was unjustly blamed.
3. What are the penalties?
Except for commercial bribery, all bribery offenses mentioned above are felony offenses. The crimes are punishable by:
As to commercial bribery, the offense can get charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on the amount of the bribe.
If the amount was $1,000 or less, then a person will receive a misdemeanor conviction. The crime is punishable by imprisonment in county jail for up to one year.6
If the bribe was greater than $1,000, then the defendant is charged with a felony. A felony conviction is punishable by custody in state prison for up to three years.7
As to felonies, a judge can award a defendant with felony (or formal) probation in lieu of prison time.
4. Can a person get a bribery conviction expunged?
A person may get a bribery conviction expunged.
Expungements are available if a person was convicted of misdemeanor bribery and successfully completed:
- a jail term, or
- probation (whichever one was imposed).
Further, an expungement is available if a convict received felony probation (and successfully completed it).
However, an expungement is not allowed in felony cases with a prison term. California law says that a person cannot get a conviction expunged if it led to prison time.
5. Are there related offenses?
There are three crimes related to California’s bribery offenses. These are:
- extortion – PC 518,
- eavesdropping PC 632, and
- embezzlement – PC 503.
5.1 Extortion – PC 518
Penal Code 518 PC is the California statute that defines the crime of extortion (also sometimes referred to as blackmail).
A person commits this offense when he or she uses force or threats to compel:
- another person to hand over money or property, or
- a public officer to perform an official act.
Unlike the state’s bribery laws which require a bribe (or a thing of value) to influence a person, PC 518 requires the use of force or threats to exercise influence.8
5.2 Eavesdropping – PC 632
California Penal Code 632 PC defines the crime of eavesdropping as listening in on or recording another person’s confidential communication.
While this offense and bribery are two distinct crimes in California, a person might attempt to bribe someone who he/she eavesdropped on depending on what was heard.
5.3 Embezzlement – PC 503
Penal Code 503 PC is the California statute that defines the crime of embezzlement. A person commits the offense if he/she:
- unlawfully takes property that has been entrusted to him/her, and
- does so with the intent of depriving the rightful owner of the use of the property.
Embezzlement is considered a white-collar crime in California.
Note that while bribery requires a showing of corrupt intent, embezzlement requires a prosecutor to prove that the accused acted with an intent to deprive.
Also see our related article on money-laundering (PC 186.10).
For additional guidance or to discuss your case with a criminal defense attorney, we invite you to contact our law firm at the Shouse Law Group.
- Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) – Bribery Act
- Transparency, Governance, and Anti-Corruption – Department of State
- OECD Anti-Bribery Convention on Combating Bribery of Foreign Officials/Foreign Governments in International Business Transactions
- Public Corruption – FBI
- Racketeering – Department of Justice
- California Penal Code 7(6). See also CALCRIM No. 2600 – Giving or Offering a Bribe to an Executive Officer. Judicial Council of California Criminal Jury Instructions (2017 edition). (California does not divide the offense into passive bribery and active bribery like some jurisdictions do.)
- California Penal Code 7(3) PC. See also People v. Gliksman (1978) 78Cal.App.3d 343; People v. Diedrich (1982) 31 Cal.3d 263; and, People v. Fryson, 2015 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 1178.
- See, for example, CALCRIM No. 2600. See also Robinson v. Superior Court (1987) 191 Cal. App. 3d 1401. See also 18 U.S.C. 201 for federal law.
- See, for example, People v. Gaio, (2000) 81 Cal.App.4th 919 (evidence was sufficient of a bribe if it established that jail official received a salesman’s payments, and salesman made them with the intent that jail official be influenced in any one or more instances, types, or courses of official action. See also People v. Riley (2015) 240 Cal. App. 4th 1152; and, People v. Wong (2010) 186 Cal.App.4th 1433.
- People v. Montgomery (1976) 61 Cal.App.3d 718.
- California Penal Code 641.3c PC.
- See same.
- See, for example, People v. Powell (1920) 50 Cal.App.436.