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Is embezzlement a felony in California?

Posted by Neil Shouse | Apr 30, 2019 | 0 Comments

embezzlement
The crime of embezzlement in California is when a person fraudulently appropriates property that: belongs to someone else, and has been entrusted to him.

The embezzlement of a firearm is always a felony under California criminal law.

In other embezzlement cases, per California Penal Code 503, the crime is a form of California grand theft and may be charged as a felony if the embezzled property is:

  • an automobile, or
  • property worth more than $950.

In embezzlement cases where the embezzled property is worth $950 or less, the offense is a form of California petty theft and is charged as a misdemeanor.

The crime of embezzlement in California is when a person fraudulently appropriates property that:

  1. belongs to someone else, and
  2. has been entrusted to him.

What is embezzlement under Penal Code 503?

Penal Code 503 is the California statute on embezzlement. For a prosecutor to show that a person is guilty under this statute, he must prove the following:

  1. an owner of property entrusted the property to the accused (directly or through an agent);
  2. the owner did so because he trusted the accused;
  3. the accused then fraudulently converted or used that property for his own benefit; and
  4. when he did so, he intended to deprive the owner of the property or its use.

Note that a person acts “fraudulently” when he either

  • takes undue advantage of another person, or
  • causes a loss to that person by breaching a duty, trust or confidence.

Examples of California 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.

When is embezzlement charged as a felony?

The embezzlement of a firearm is always a felony under California criminal law.

The crime is a form of California grand theft if the embezzled property is:

  • an automobile, or
  • property worth more than $950.

In these cases, embezzlement is a type of wobbler offense. This means it can be charged as either a felony or a misdemeanor, depending on:

  • the facts of the case, and
  • the criminal history of the defendant.

If the prosecutor decides to charge a defendant with felony embezzlement, the crime is punishable by imprisonment in jail for up to three years.

Are there aggravating and mitigating factors for felony embezzlement charges?

Both aggravating and mitigating factors may be available in embezzlement cases when the offense is charged as a felony. For example, a judge is likely to give a defendant a tougher sentence if his victim was an elderly or a dependent person (that is, someone with a mental or physical impairment that affects his daily functioning). A factor leading to a more severe sentence is an aggravating factor.

A mitigating factor, or one which may lead a judge to grant a less severe sentence, is when the defendant returned the property subject to the embezzlement. But note that this return must have come before the party gets formally charged.

When is embezzlement charged as a misdemeanor?

There are two situations in which embezzlement is charged as a misdemeanor. These are when:

  1. a prosecutor decides to charge grand theft embezzlement as a misdemeanor, and
  2. the embezzled property is worth $950 or less.

In the former case, the crime is punishable by imprisonment in the county jail for up to one year.

In cases where the embezzled property is worth $950 or less, the crime is treated as a form of California petty theft. It is punishable by imprisonment in the county jail for up to six-months.

Are there legal defenses to California embezzlement charges?

A defendant can raise a legal defense to accusations of this crime. A successful defense can work to reduce a certain charge or to eliminate one altogether.

Four common defenses to California embezzlement charges are that the defendant:

  1. believed in good faith that he had a right to the property involved,
  2. did not act “fraudulently,”
  3. did not intend to deprive the owner of the property, and
  4. was falsely accused.

About the Author

Neil Shouse

A former Los Angeles prosecutor, attorney Neil Shouse graduated with honors from UC Berkeley and Harvard Law School (and completed additional graduate studies at MIT). He has been featured on CNN, Good Morning America, Dr Phil, Court TV, The Today Show and Court TV. Mr Shouse has been recognized by the National Trial Lawyers as one of the Top 100 Criminal and Top 100 Civil Attorneys.

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