Prosecutors use California Penal Code § 504 PC to charge public officers with embezzlement if they fraudulently use public property, resources or funds in a way that goes beyond their official authority.
- the Mayor of a city fraudulently sells off public lands and transfers the proceeds from the sale into his own offshore account for his own use.
- a secretary from a California county fraudulently diverts certain public money from tax dollars into her own bank account.
- the Head of Transportation for a California county fraudulently obtains a city car and gives it to his son so that he can take it on a road trip with his friends.
- a city councilman fraudulently uses a work credit card to buy personal property for himself.
- a county commissioner conceals county property with the intent to appropriate it for personal reasons unconnected with the execution of their public duty.
- a state legislator intentionally misuses funds in ways that exceed their official authority.
Luckily, there are several legal defenses that you can raise if accused under PC 504. These include showing that you:
- were not a public officer,
- did not commit fraud, and
- acted under duress.
Depending on the case, the D.A. may agree to negotiate the charge down to a lesser offense or even a full dismissal.
Violating Penal Code 504 is embezzlement. As such, misappropriation by a public officer is punished as a form of grand theft or petty theft, depending on the value and type of property involved. Charges for this white collar crime can be filed as either a
- misdemeanor or
- a felony (but never as an infraction).
Our California criminal defense attorneys will highlight the following in this article:
- 1. What is “embezzlement by a public officer”?
- 2. What are the legal defenses to PC 504 charges?
- 3. What are the penalties, punishment, and sentencing?
- 4. What are related offenses?
1. What is “embezzlement by a public officer”?
Penal Code 504 PC is the California statute that says you are guilty of embezzlement if you are a public officer who:
- fraudulently uses any public property or public funds, and
- uses them in a way not consistent with your official authority. 1
To use something “fraudulently” means to use it with trickery or by dishonest means.
2. What are the legal defenses to PC 504 charges?
You can try to challenge a PC 504 accusation by raising a legal defense. A legal defense may work to reduce or dismiss an embezzlement/misappropriation charge.
Three common defenses to Penal Code 504 charges include:
- no public officer;
- no fraud; and/or,
Note that if you are still being investigated and have not yet been charged, it may be possible to intervene right away. If we can show the D.A. that you have solid defenses, they may agree to reject the case before getting the courts involved.
2.1. No public officer
Only public officers can violate Penal Code 504. Therefore, it is always a legal defense to show that you were not a “public officer” at the time any alleged crime took place.
In general, public officers include:
- California state board-, agency-, or bureau members;
- Employees of the state of California (including the governor);
- Employees of a California county, city, municipal corporation, authority, district, or subdivision thereof (for example, clerks, secretaries, council members, and mayors); and
- Agents of public officers.
Note that if you are not a public officer, you could still be charged with embezzlement – just not as a public officer.
2.2. No fraud
Public officers have to fraudulently use public property or funds to be found guilty under PC 504. This means it is a sound legal defense to show that there was no fraud involved in the case (for example, perhaps you misappropriated funds via a simple mistake).
Fraud is defined as deliberately committing deception in a way that brings you an unearned benefit and/or results in the government being harmed or sustaining a loss.
As long as the prosecution cannot prove beyond a reasonable doubt that you had an intent to defraud, then the charge should be dismissed. Innocent errors and honest mistakes are not criminal.
Duress is a legal defense in which you basically say: “He made me do it.”
The defense applies to the very limited situation in which you commit a crime (here, embezzling property or money) because somebody seriously threatened to use violence against you (or your family) if the crime was not committed.
Being mildly pressured – such as with a threat of a no-vote or a negative op-ed – does not count as duress.
3. What are the penalties, punishment, and sentencing?
A public officer that violates Penal Code 504 is guilty of embezzlement.2 Embezzlement in California can be punished as either a form of:
- grand theft, per Penal Code 487, or
- petty theft, per penal Code 484 and 488.
3.1. Grand theft punishment
Embezzlement is charged as grand theft if the property involved was:
- worth $950 or more,
- an automobile, or
- a firearm.3
A charge of grand theft is known as a wobbler under California law, meaning it can be charged either as a misdemeanor or a felony.4 Either charge may result in:
- imprisonment, and
- substantial fines.
When embezzlement is a misdemeanor, penalties include up to one year in jail and/or up to $1,000 in fines.
When embezzlement is a felony, penalties include 16 months, two years, or three years in jail and up to $10,000 in fines.
Note that the judge has the discretion to grant you probation in lieu of incarceration. Depending on your case, you may be required to:
- pay restitution;
- perform community service;
- attend counseling;
- appear in court or meet with a court official to inform them of your progress.
Violating your probation could cause you to be remanded to jail.
3.2. Petty theft punishment
Embezzlement is charged as a form of petty theft if the value of the property or value of the money was less than $950. If this is the case, you can face a misdemeanor charge with a maximum sentence of six months in a county jail.5
4. What are related offenses?
There are three laws related to embezzlement/misappropriation by a public officer. These are:
- embezzlement – PC 503;
- grand theft – PC 487; and,
4.1. Embezzlement – PC 503
Penal Code 503 PC makes it a crime to commit embezzlement.
Per PC 503, embezzlement is defined as fraudulently appropriating property that
- belongs to someone else, and
- has been entrusted to you.6
Embezzlement in California is punished as a form of California grand theft or California petty theft, depending on the value and type of property involved.7 For penalties involving both of these, please see Sections 3.1 and 3.2 above.
4.2. Grand theft – PC 487
Penal Code 487 PC is the California statute that defines the crime of “grand theft.”
This section defines the offense as the unlawful taking of someone else’s property, when the property is valued at $950 or more.8
In most cases, the offense of grand theft in California is a wobbler, meaning that it can be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony.9
No matter how the crime is charged, it can be punished by:
- imprisonment, and
- a substantial fine.
There are several bribery laws in California. In general, bribery is an effort to corruptly influence, by way of money or gift, a public official in the course of that official’s work.
Penalties for bribery include:
- imprisonment in a county jail or the California state prison,
- fines, and/or
- forfeiture of office.
For additional help…
If you or a family member are being investigated or has been arrested by law enforcement in Los Angeles or elsewhere in California, per Penal Code 504, we invite you to contact our DUI/criminal law firm. Our California criminal defense lawyers can be reached 24/7. Fill out our contact form on this page.
See our related articles on health care fraud, solicitation to commit a crime and counterfeiting goods.
(For similar criminal charges and accusations in Colorado, please see our article on Embezzlement of Public Property in Colorado, CRS 18-8-407).
- California Penal Code 504. This code section states: “Every officer of this state, or of any county, city, city and county, or other municipal corporation or subdivision thereof, and every deputy, clerk, or servant of that officer, and every officer, director, trustee, clerk, servant, or agent of any association, society, or corporation (public or private), who fraudulently appropriates to any use or purpose not in the due and lawful execution of that person’s trust, any property in his or her possession or under his or her control by virtue of that trust, or secretes it with a fraudulent intent to appropriate it to that use or purpose, is guilty of embezzlement.” See, for example, Breceda v. Superior Court (Cal. App. 2d Dist., 2013), 215 Cal. App. 4th 934, 156 Cal. Rptr. 3d 130. See also IAR Systems Software, Inc. v. Superior Court (Cal. App. 1st Dist., 2017), 218 Cal. Rptr. 3d 852; People v. Selivanov (Cal. App. 2d Dist., 2016), 210 Cal. Rptr. 3d 117; People v. Murakami (Cal. App., 1932), 122 Cal. App. 221; People v. Westlake (Cal., 1899), 126 Cal. 154.
- See same.
- California Penal Code 487 PC. See, for example, People v. Selivanov (Cal. App. 2d Dist., 2016), 210 Cal. Rptr. 3d 117, 5 Cal. App. 5th 726.
- California Penal Code 489 PC.
- California Penal Code 490 PC.
- California Penal Code 503 PC.
- California Penal Code 514 PC.
- California Penal Code 487 PC.
- California Penal Code 489 PC.