Under Penal Code 503 PC, the crime of embezzlement in California is defined as fraudulently appropriating property that
- belongs to someone else, and
- has been entrusted to you.1
The term “embezzlement” may make you think of a complicated “white-collar crime” involving large sums of money, committed by high-powered financiers or executives.
But, in fact, embezzlement charges in California, under Penal Code 503, are filed against all sorts of people, in all sorts of jobs and relationships, and can involve very small sums of money or other property.
It is important to realize that you can be charged with—and convicted of—embezzlement even if you didn't intend to keep the property in question and were only borrowing it temporarily.2
Examples of 503 PC embezzlement could include all of the following:
- An employee at a valet parking lot in an airport lends one of the parked cars to his son, who needs transportation for a job interview, and returns it after the interview.
- A home healthcare worker who cares for an elderly woman is asked by her employer to take several hundred dollars in cash to the bank and deposit it. Instead, she keeps the money for herself.
- The treasurer of a non-profit organization pulls several thousand dollars out of the organization's bank account and uses it to pay off his gambling debts.
If the property is either
- worth more than nine hundred fifty dollars ($950),
- an automobile, or
- a firearm,
then California embezzlement is a form of grand theft4—and is a wobbler in California law.5
This means that it may be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on the circumstances of the case.6 Misdemeanor grand theft embezzlement can lead to up to one (1) year in county jail, while felony grand theft embezzlement can land you in jail for up to three (3) years.7
With property worth less than $950, embezzlement is a form of petty theft—a misdemeanor punishable by up to six (6) months in county jail.8
Embezzlement charges can be confusing and frightening. An experienced California criminal defense attorney can help you understand your rights in the California criminal pretrial process and the best ways to defend yourself.
Some common legal defenses to Penal Code 503 PC embezzlement include:
- You believed in good faith that you had had a right to the property;9
- You lacked criminal intent; and
- You were falsely accused.
In order to help you better understand the California crime of embezzlement, our California criminal defense attorneys will address the following:
- 1. The Legal Definition of California Embezzlement, PC 503
- 2. Penalties for Penal Code 503 Embezzlement
- 2.1. Grand theft embezzlement penalties
- 2.2. Petty theft embezzlement penalties
- 2.3. Aggravating and mitigating factors
- 3. Legal Defenses to California Embezzlement Charges
- 4. California Embezzlement and Related Offenses
If, after reading this article, you would like more information, we invite you to contact us at Shouse Law Group.
The legal definition of embezzlement in California revolves around several “elements of the crime.” These are facts that the prosecutor must prove in order for you to be guilty of this offense.
The elements of the crime of California embezzlement are as follows:
- An owner of property entrusted their property to you (directly or through an agent);
- The owner did so because s/he trusted you;
- You then fraudulently converted or used that property for your own benefit; and
- When you did so, you intended to deprive the owner of the property or its use.10
Let's take a better look at some of these elements in order to better understand their meaning.
Relationship of trust
Embezzlement charges will only stick if an owner of property entrusted the property to you, because s/he trusted you.11 This might happen because
- You were the owner's employee,
- You were the “bailee” of the owner's property—that is, someone given temporary possession of their property (such as a mechanic or a valet given temporary possession of a car),12 or
- You were a trustee, board member, or principal of an organization with the right to manage its money or property.
Example: Angela is the office manager for a small plumbing company. Every Friday, she takes all the payments the company has received in cash to the bank and deposits them.
Angela is going through a divorce and having trouble paying her bills. For several months, she takes a couple hundred dollars in cash out of the amount she is supposed to deposit and keeps it for herself.
Angela was in a relationship of trust with the company's owner—and is guilty of embezzlement for her actions.
But just working for an employer is not enough to create a presumption that there was a relationship of trust. This element of the crime of embezzlement can only be proved if there was some concrete evidence of trust or confidence between the employer and the employee.13
Example: Terry works for the same plumbing company as Angela, but as a part-time janitor for their offices. He does not have keys to the safe or the office.
One day, he is left alone in the office, and the safe is accidentally left open. Terry steals several hundred dollars in cash.
This is ordinary California theft—but it is probably not embezzlement, because there was no relationship of trust between Terry and the company.
Fraudulently taking or using the property
California embezzlement only occurs if the defendant fraudulently converts or uses the property, for his or her own benefit.14
You act fraudulently when you either
- take undue advantage of another person, or
- cause a loss to that person by breaching a duty, trust or confidence.15
In other words, you are not guilty of Penal Code 503 embezzlement unless you used the property in a way that causes loss to its owner and brings you some sort of benefit.
Example: Sally is the housekeeper for a busy wealthy family. Ellen, the wife of the family, regularly gives Sally hundreds of dollars in cash to buy groceries.
One week Ellen leaves the normal money for Sally with instructions to buy groceries, and goes to the country club to swim. Sally knows that Ellen has forgotten that today is her husband Mark's birthday. She is unable to reach Ellen on her cell phone while she is in the pool.
So, instead of buying groceries with the money, Sally uses it to buy presents for Mark.
Ellen took money that had been entrusted to her and used it in an unauthorized way. But because she thought she was doing it for Ellen's benefit, she is probably not guilty of embezzlement.
Intent to deprive the owner of its use
You only commit embezzlement if you intend to deprive the property owner of the property or its use.16
But you do not need to intend to deprive them of the property permanently—even a temporary deprivation will do. And the fact that you intend to return the property or repay the money at some point is not a valid defense.17
Example: Lou works at a car dealership in a position that involves handling large sums of money. He hates working with his colleague Ian because Ian always screws up the paperwork. But the owners refuse to fire Ian.
One day, Ian handles a car sale that involves a large amount of cash. After Ian deposits the cash in the dealership's safe, Lou takes that cash and hides it. He doesn't intend to keep the cash—but he is hoping that Ian will be fired when the owner discovers it is missing.
Lou is guilty of embezzlement in California even though he didn't intend to keep the money permanently.18
The penalties for Penal Code 503 PC embezzlement depend on the type and value of the property you are alleged to have embezzled.19
You will face the penalties for the crime of California grand theft, Penal Code 487 PC, if the property you are alleged to have embezzled is either:
- Worth more than nine hundred fifty dollars ($950),
- An automobile (in which case embezzlement becomes a form of grand theft auto), or
- A firearm (in which case embezzlement becomes a form of grand theft firearm).20
Also, if you embezzle several sums smaller than $950 from an employer or person for whom you are acting as agent—but those sums add up to $950 or more in any 12-month period—you will be charged with grand theft embezzlement.21
Grand theft embezzlement in most cases is a wobbler. This means that it may be charged as either a misdemeanor OR a felony, depending on
- the circumstances of the case, and
- the defendant's criminal history.22
But grand theft embezzlement always carries felony penalties if the property embezzled is a firearm.23
Misdemeanor grand theft embezzlement carries the following penalties:
- Misdemeanor (summary) probation; and/or
- Up to one (1) year in county jail; and/or
- A fine of up to one thousand dollars ($1,000).24
Felony grand theft embezzlement (other than cases of embezzlement of firearms) carries the following penalties:
- Felony (formal) probation;
- 16 months or two (2) years or three (3) years in county jail; and/or
- A fine of up to ten thousand dollars ($10,000).
Felony grand theft embezzlement of firearms can be punished by:
- Felony (formal) probation;
- 16 months or two (2) years or three (3) years in California state prison; and/or
- A fine of up to ten thousand dollars ($10,000).25
Not only that—but you face an additional and consecutive sentence if you are convicted of felony embezzlement, and the victim suffers a loss of a particularly high monetary value.
The potential sentence enhancements for felony embezzlement of high-value property are:
- One (1) year if the property was worth more than sixty-five thousand dollars ($65,000),
- Two (2) years if the property was worth more than two hundred thousand dollars ($200,000),
- Three (3) years if the property was worth more than one million three hundred thousand dollars ($1,300,000), and
- Four (4) years if the property was worth more than three million two hundred thousand dollars ($3,200,000).26
Any embezzlement that does not meet the definition of California grand theft is considered a form of—and punished as—California petty theft, Penal Code 488 PC.27
Petty theft is a misdemeanor in California law. The potential penalties for petty theft are:
- Misdemeanor probation;
- Up to six (6) months in county jail; and/or
- A fine of up to one thousand dollars ($1,000).28
In determining your sentence for felony (grand-theft) embezzlement, the judge is likely to give you a tougher sentence if your victim was elderly or a dependent person (that is, someone with a mental or physical impairment that affects their daily functioning).29 This is what is known as an “aggravating factor” in embezzlement sentencing.
(In this case, you may also find yourself facing charges, and an additional sentence, for California Penal Code 368 elder abuse.)
On the flip side, the judge may impose a less stringent punishment if you voluntarily return the property you are supposed to have embezzled—but only if you do this before you are charged with Penal Code 503 embezzlement.30
But, as we noted above, this does not mean that you can escape a conviction altogether.31
Example: Alfonso is the bookkeeper for a small manufacturing company. One month, when he is facing unexpected home repair expenses and having trouble paying his bills, he takes $500 from the company account without authorization from his boss.
Six months later, Alfonso pays back the $500 “loan” he gave himself from his employer. But when he does so, his boss notices the suspicious transactions—and Alfonso is charged with California embezzlement.
The fact that Alfonso returned the money voluntarily does not shield him from a conviction for petty theft embezzlement. However, the judge takes it into account as a “mitigating factor”—and decides to sentence Alfonso to probation rather than jail time.
Embezzlement charges can be devastating for your professional and personal life. Your best move is to contact a California theft crimes defense lawyer as soon as possible.
S/he can help you mount the best defense to get the charges reduced or dismissed—or to get you acquitted, or your sentence minimized, if your case goes to trial.
Possible legal defenses to a PC 503 charge include:
You believed in good faith that you had a right to the property
Under California embezzlement law, you are not guilty if you believed—in good faith—that you had a right to the property you took.32
For this defense to apply, the following must be true:
- You took possession of the property openly (i.e., didn't conceal what you were doing), and
- You didn't take the property because the owner owed you a debt.33
Example: Joanne's elderly mother Rachel has just died, naming Joanne administrator of her estate. Rachel went through several drafts of her will before she died, and there is some confusion as to which is the valid one.
One of the drafts of the will left all of Rachel's jewelry to Joanne. So Joanne takes the jewelry from her mother's house and uses it for herself; she also gives some of it to her own daughter.
But it turns out that the last will Rachel wrote did not leave all her jewelry to Joanne. Rachel's other heirs get upset and accuse Joanne of embezzling the jewelry from the estate.
Joanne will probably be able to defend herself against embezzlement charges, on the grounds that she believed in good faith that she was entitled to the jewelry.
You lacked criminal intent
A California embezzlement conviction requires the prosecutor to prove that you intended to deprive the owner of his/her property or its use (even temporarily).34
According to Santa Barbara criminal defense attorney Neil Shouse35:
“Criminal intent can be very difficult to prove. And many embezzlement cases involve complicated paper trails and financial details. It is very possible that what looks like an act of embezzlement was really just a mistake on the part of the defendant.”
You were falsely accused
Far too many people are falsely accused of California crimes—and embezzlement is no exception.
In fact, false accusations are especially common in embezzlement cases—because the “victim” is almost always someone who had a preexisting business or personal relationship with the defendant.
The so-called “victim” may just have an ax to grind or a desire for revenge over a business arrangement gone wrong. Or s/he may want to blame someone else for his/her own financial losses.
In this situation, gathering the right evidence and talking to the right people is key. A good criminal defense lawyer, with the help of trained investigators, can help ensure that the true story emerges.
There are several other California offenses that are frequently charged along with Penal Code 503 embezzlement. These include:
Penal Code 470, California's forgery law, makes it a crime to knowingly alter, create, or use a written document, intending to commit a fraud.36
You could be charged with both California forgery and California embezzlement if, for example, you are accused of signing your boss's name to a check made out to “cash” and then cashing it.
PC 470 forgery is a wobbler. Misdemeanor penalties include up to one (1) year in county jail, and felony penalties include sixteen (16) months, two (2) years or three (3) years in county jail.37
Burglary in California law is defined as entering any structure with the intent to commit theft or any felony once inside.38
So, for example, if you entered the office or private home where you worked with the intention of embezzling funds once inside, you could be charged with both embezzlement and burglary.
Under Penal Code 459 PC, burglary is a wobbler if you enter a structure that is not inhabited (“second-degree burglary”) and a felony if you enter a structure that is inhabited (“first-degree burglary”).39
Generally speaking, you commit criminal fraud in California when you commit an act that results in an unfair or undeserved benefit for yourself, and/or causes harm or loss to another person.
Certain forms of fraud could be prosecuted as embezzlement in California. Others are prosecuted under specific laws covering, for example,
- insurance fraud,
- real estate fraud,
- check fraud, and
- mail fraud.
Embezzlement charges AND fraud charges could be filed together in complicated cases.
Penal Code 424 PC misappropriation of public funds is a closely-related offense to embezzlement.
Misappropriation of public funds occurs when someone with control over government funds (usually but not always a government employee) appropriates those funds or lends them out without authority to do so. This offense can also be charged against someone who creates false financial records or fraudulently alters or deletes financial records relating to government funds.40
One important point about PC 424 misappropriation of public funds is that the defendant must have either known his/her behavior was illegal or else displayed criminal negligence in failing to find out whether it was legal. This law also does not apply to the misappropriation of incidental and minimal amounts of money.41
Misappropriation of public money is a felony and carries a state prison sentence of two (2), three (3) or four (4) years.42
4.5. Penal Code 504 Embezzlement by a public officer
Penal Code 504 PC is the specific statute that addresses the crime of embezzlement or misappropriation of public funds or resources by a governmental officer. This offense is treated as petty theft or grand theft depending on the amount monetary value of the misappropriation.
Call us for help…
For questions about the crime of embezzlement in California, or to discuss your case confidentially with one of our California criminal defense attorneys, do not hesitate to contact us at Shouse Law Group.
We have local criminal law offices in and around Los Angeles, San Diego, Orange County, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura, San Jose, Oakland, the San Francisco Bay area, and several nearby cities.
For more information on Nevada embezzlement laws, please see our page on Nevada embezzlement laws.
Penal Code 503 PC – Definition [of embezzlement]. (“Embezzlement is the fraudulent appropriation of property by a person to whom it has been entrusted.”)
Penal Code 513 PC – Defenses; mitigation of punishment; restoration of property or tender before indictment or information. (“Whenever, prior to an information laid before a magistrate, or an indictment found by a grand jury, charging the commission of embezzlement, the person accused voluntarily and actually restores or tenders restoration of the property alleged to have been embezzled, or any part thereof, such fact is not a ground of defense, but it authorizes the court to mitigate punishment, in its discretion.”
See also Penal Code 512 PC – Defenses; mitigation of punishment; intent to restore property; time. (“The fact that the accused intended to restore the property embezzled, is no ground of defense or mitigation of punishment, if it has not been restored before an information has been laid before a magistrate, or an indictment found by a grand jury, charging the commission of the offense.”)
Penal Code 514 PC – Punishment; determination of value; defalcation of public funds; disenfranchisement. (“Every person guilty of embezzlement is punishable in the manner prescribed for theft of property of the value or kind embezzled; and where the property embezzled is an evidence of debt or right of action, the sum due upon it or secured to be paid by it must be taken as its value; if the embezzlement or defalcation is of the public funds of the United States, or of this state, or of any county or municipality within this state, the offense is a felony, and is punishable by imprisonment in the state prison; and the person so convicted is ineligible thereafter to any office of honor, trust, or profit in this state.”)
Penal Code 487 PC – “Grand theft” defined. (“Grand theft is theft committed in any of the following cases: (a) When the money, labor, or real or personal property taken is of a value exceeding nine hundred fifty dollars ($950), except as provided in subdivision (b). (b) . . . (3) Where the money, labor, or real or personal property is taken by a servant, agent, or employee from his or her principal or employer and aggregates nine hundred fifty dollars ($950) or more in any 12 consecutive month period. (c) When the property is taken from the person of another. (d) When the property taken is any of the following: (1) An automobile. (2) A firearm.”)
California Penal Code 489 PC – Grand theft [including theft through embezzlement]; punishment. (“Grand theft is punishable as follows: (a) If the grand theft involves the theft of a firearm, by imprisonment in the state prison for 16 months, or two or three years. . . . (c) In all other cases, by imprisonment in a county jail not exceeding one year or pursuant to subdivision (h) of Section 1170.”)
See also Penal Code 1170(h) PC. (“(h)(1) Except as provided in paragraph (3), a felony punishable pursuant to this subdivision where the term is not specified in the underlying offense shall be punishable by a term of imprisonment in a county jail for 16 months, or two or three years.”)
Penal Code 490 PC – Petty theft [including embezzlement]; punishment. (“Petty theft is punishable by fine not exceeding one thousand dollars ($1,000), or by imprisonment in the county jail not exceeding six months, or both.”)
Penal Code 511 PC – Defenses [to embezzlement charges]; claim of title; unlawful retention of property to offset or pay demands not excused. (“Upon any indictment for embezzlement, it is a sufficient defense that the property was appropriated openly and avowedly, and under a claim of title preferred in good faith, even though such claim is untenable. But this provision does not excuse the unlawful retention of the property of another to offset or pay demands held against him.”)
Judicial Council of California Criminal Jury Instructions (“CALCRIM”) 1806 – Theft by Embezzlement (Pen. Code, §§ 484, 503) (“The defendant is charged [in Count ] with [grand/petty] theft by embezzlement [in violation of Penal Code section 503]. To prove that the defendant is guilty of this crime, the People must prove that: 1 An owner [or the owner's agent] entrusted (his/her) property to the defendant; 2 The owner [or owner's agent] did so because (he/she) trusted the defendant; 3 The defendant fraudulently (converted/used) that property for (his/her) own benefit; AND 4 When the defendant (converted/used) the property, (he/she) intended to deprive the owner of (it/its use).”)
Penal Code 507 PC – Bailee; tenant; lodger; attorney in fact. (“Every person intrusted with any property as bailee, tenant, or lodger, or with any power of attorney for the sale or transfer thereof, who fraudulently converts the same or the proceeds thereof to his own use, or secretes it or them with a fraudulent intent to convert to his own use, is guilty of embezzlement.”)
See also Black's Law Dictionary (9th ed. 2009), bailee. (“A person who receives personal property from another, and has possession of but not title to the property.”)
CALCRIM 1806 – Theft by Embezzlement (Pen. Code, §§ 484, 503). Related Issues. (“Fiduciary Relationships. Courts have held that creditor/debtor and employer/employee relationships are not presumed to be fiduciary relationships in the absence of other evidence of trust or confidence. (People v. Wooten (1996) 44 Cal.App.4th 1834, 1846 [52 Cal.Rptr.2d 765][creditor/debtor]; People v. Threestar (1985) 167 Cal.App.3d 747, 759 [213 Cal.Rptr. 510] [employer/employee].)”)
CALCRIM 1806 – Theft by Embezzlement (Pen. Code, §§ 484, 503), endnote 10, above.
CALCRIM 1806 – Theft by Embezzlement (Pen. Code, §§ 484, 503). (“A person acts fraudulently when he or she takes undue advantage of another person or causes a loss to that person by breaching a duty, trust or confidence.”)
CALCRIM 1806 – Theft by Embezzlement (Pen. Code, §§ 484, 503), endnote 10, above.
CALCRIM 1806 – Theft by Embezzlement (Pen. Code, §§ 484, 503). (“[An intent to deprive the owner of property, even temporarily, is enough.] [Intent to restore the property to its owner is not a defense.]”)
Based on the facts of People v. Sisuphan (2010) 181 Cal.App.4th 800.
Penal Code 514 PC – Punishment [for embezzlement]; determination of value; defalcation of public funds; disenfranchisement, endnote 3, above.
Penal Code 487 PC – “Grand theft” [including theft through embezzlement] defined, endnote 4, above.
Penal Code 489 PC – Grand theft [including theft through embezzlement]; punishment, endnote 5, above.
See also Penal Code 672 PC -- Offenses for which no fine prescribed; fine authorized in addition to imprisonment. ("Upon a conviction for any crime punishable by imprisonment in any jail or prison, in relation to which no fine is herein prescribed, the court may impose a fine on the offender not exceeding one thousand dollars ($1,000) in cases of misdemeanors [including misdemeanor grand theft embezzlement] or ten thousand dollars ($10,000) in cases of felonies [including felony grand theft embezzlement], in addition to the imprisonment prescribed.")
See also Penal Code 1170(h) PC, endnote 7, above.
Penal Code 12022.6 PC.
Penal Code 488 PC – Petty theft [including petty theft embezzlement] defined. (“Theft in other cases is petty theft.”)
Penal Code 490 PC – Petty theft [including embezzlement]; punishment, endnote 8, above.
Penal Code 515 PC – Felony convictions [of embezzlement]; aggravating circumstances; elder or dependent person victims. (“Upon conviction of a felony violation under this chapter, the fact that the victim was an elder or dependent person, as defined in Section 288, shall be considered a circumstance in aggravation when imposing a term under subdivision (b) of Section 1170.”)
Penal Code 513 PC – Defenses [to embezzlement charges]; mitigation of punishment; restoration of property or tender before indictment or information. (“Whenever, prior to an information laid before a magistrate, or an indictment found by a grand jury, charging the commission of embezzlement, the person accused voluntarily and actually restores or tenders restoration of the property alleged to have been embezzled, or any part thereof, such fact is not a ground of defense, but it authorizes the court to mitigate punishment, in its discretion.”)
Penal Code 511 PC – Defenses [to embezzlement charges]; claim of title; unlawful retention of property to offset or pay demands not excused, endnote 9, above.
CALCRIM 1806 – Theft by Embezzlement (Pen. Code, §§ 484, 503), endnote 10, above.
Santa Barbara criminal defense attorney Neil Shouse is an honors graduate of UC-Berkeley and Harvard Law School. He served for five years as a Deputy DA for Los Angeles County, prosecuting more than 60 criminal trials and earning a phenomenal 96% success rate in felony jury trials. Now, as the founding partner of Shouse Law Group, he represents criminal defendants accused of a wide-range of high-stakes crimes, from DUI to embezzlement to kidnapping and murder.
Penal Code 470 PC - Forgery; Signatures or Seals; Corruption of Records
Penal Code 473 PC – Forgery [may be charged along with California embezzlement]; punishment. ("Forgery is punishable by imprisonment in a county jail for not more than one year, or by imprisonment pursuant to subdivision (h) of Section 1170.")
Penal Code 459 PC – Definition.
See Penal Code 460 PC – Degrees [of burglary]; Penal Code 461 PC – Punishment [for burglary] [may be in addition to penalties for embezzlement].
Penal Code 424 PC - Misappropriation of public funds [related offense to embezzlement].