Embezzlementfraud and all other white collar crimes are serious charges. However, many defendants who have been accused of embezzlement report that they never intended to take things to the point of committing a crime. Even more often, defendants say tell that they weren’t aware of the law and thought that the activity they were engaged in was perfectly legal. In other instances, some defendants may have been entrapped by federal investigators.

Because embezzlement is a white-collar crime that often has intentional victims and unintentional criminals who were coerced into committing crimes they knew nothing about, those truly responsible for the crimes committed often hold positions of power within an organization. Usually, this responsible party is guilty of transferring funds to another party or misappropriating funds for personal gain.

The good news is that if you have been charged with embezzlement, at the state or federal level, the prosecutor’s primary objective is to seek restitution for the victim, and not necessarily to put you in jail. If you have been charged with embezzlement, the best thing that you can do is to hire a California criminal defense attorney as soon as possible.

When able to get involved early on in the process, your attorney has the best chances of finding you the best possible results and even be able to keep you from having to go to court and keep the charges off of your record.

What is Embezzlement?

According to California’s Penal Code 503, there are three main “elements” used to define embezzlement in California. These elements are criteria that must be proven by the prosecutor in order to make a conviction. Below are descriptions of the three elements of embezzlement:

1. You were entrusted with someone else’s property by the owner (directly or through a third party agent)

In order to be convicted of embezzlement, the owner of the property has to have entrusted the property to you because they trusted you with it. For example, if you were an employee of a board member of an organization. However, it is not enough to be an employee, board member, or trustee to be found guilty of embezzlement. The prosecution must be able to provide specific evidence of a relationship of trust.

2. You fraudulently used or converted the property entrusted to you for your own benefit.

In order to fraudulently use or convert the property in question, you must have taken advantage of someone or breached their confidence to do so. For example, a trusted employee causing a loss to their employer by misusing the funds with which they were trusted.

3. When you fraudulently used or converted the property, you did it with the intent to deprive the owner of the property or its use.

You are guilty of embezzlement if you intend to deprive the owner of the property in question of its use, either permanently or temporarily. It doesn’t matter if you intend to return the property or money later on, if you intended to deprive the owner for any period of time.

There are several crimes related to embezzlement that may be charged in addition to Penal Code 503. An additional charge may result in increased penalties if convicted. These crimes are described below. 

Misappropriation of public funds – Penal Code 424

When someone who has control over government funds, such as a government employee, unlawfully appropriates or lends those funds, or creates a false financial record, he or she is guilty of violating Penal Code 424. This crime does not apply when the defendant was unaware that their behavior was illegal or if the funds were of a very small amount.

Embezzlement by a public officer – Penal Code 504 PC

If a government officer misappropriates public funds or resources, he or she may be charged with violating Penal Code 504 PC. Depending on the amount of money or the value or resources that have been misappropriated, this crime is either treated as petty theft or grand theft in terms of sentencing. 

Forgery – Penal Code 470

Forgery is the alteration, creation, or use of a written document to commit fraud. It is possible to be charged with both embezzlement and forgery in many instances, for example, forging another person’s signature on a check that you intend to cash yourself. Forgery can be charged as either misdemeanor or felony in California. A misdemeanor conviction may result in 1 year in county jail. A felony conviction may result in an county jail sentence of 16 months, 2 years, or 3 years.


There are many different types of fraud in California law. In general, fraud is defined as an act that results in an undeserved benefit for you at the expense of someone else. Fraud and embezzlement may be charged together in California, or some instances of fraud may instead be charged as embezzlement. 

Burglary – Penal Code 459

In California, burglary is defined as the entering or attempted entering of a building, structure, room, or vehicle with the intent to commit theft or a felony once inside. If the felony that you intend to commit upon entering the structure is embezzlement, then you may be charged with both embezzlement and burglary. Burglary is a wobbler in California and may be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony depending on specific facts of the case and whether or not the structure was inhabited. 

Penalties for an Embezzlement Conviction

Embezzlement can be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on the circumstances of the case. Specifically, if the amount of money allegedly embezzled totals $950 or more, you could be charged with grand theft embezzlement, and if the amount of money allegedly embezzled totals $949 or less, you could be charged with petty embezzlement.

Below are the likely penalties for various types of embezzlement convictions:

  • Misdemeanor grand theft embezzlement: Depending on your prior record and current situation you could be assessed a one-year jail sentence and $1,000 in fines.
  • Grand theft felony embezzlement conviction : Depending on your prior record, you could face a 16-month jail sentence, or a 2 to 3 year prison sentence in addition to $10,000 in fines.
  • Petty theft embezzlement: You could face a 6-month jail sentence in addition to paying up to $1,000 in fines.
  • Petty theft embezzlement totaling less than $50: You may be able to have your charges dropped in exchange for paying a $250 fine.
  • Aggravated embezzlement: If charged with embezzling an amount totaling $6,500 or more, you will face aggravated charges and may receive an additional year in prison if convicted.
  • If more than $950 is embezzled in smaller amounts over the course of a year, prosecutors may use the total amount to secure a grand theft embezzlement charge, as opposed to separate, smaller charges for each of the individual amounts.
  • If you embezzled any amount of money from a senior, a minor, or a dependent, you could receive additional penalties.

Embezzlement can have serious detrimental effects on your personal and professional life. Thankfully, there are defense strategies available that your attorney can use which may lead you to be able to have your charges reduced or dropped altogether. Below are a few of the most common defensive strategies used in California embezzlement cases. 

False accusation

It is not uncommon for people to be falsely accused of embezzlement. Maybe your employer has a grudge against you or the victim is looking to blame someone for their own poor financial decisions. Whatever the scenario, if you can prove that you have been falsely accused, you cannot be convicted. 

Belief in right to property

If you believed, in good faith, that you had rights to the property that you took or used, then you are not guilty of embezzlement. If you openly took the property and it is apparent that you did so out of belief that it belonged to you, this may be a good defense strategy for you. 

Lack of intent

Maybe you made a mistake on a financial document that was mistaken as embezzlement or otherwise unintentionally misappropriated with that led to someone else’s financial loss. While it is often difficult to prove, a lack of intent to breach the property owner’s trust in order to deprive them of that property means that the defendant is not guilty of embezzlement. If this situation applies to you, it is worth working with your attorney to find the evidence that can prove your innocence.

To fight embezzlement charges you need an experienced embezzlement defense attorney who can navigate the federal and state courts and defend your rights in trial. Through a confidential review of your case, attorney Robert M. Helfend can assess the seriousness of your charges and the specifics of your case to build an aggressive defense strategy that is right for you.

As a Ventura defense attorney with more than 40 years of experience, Mr. Helfend is rated by SuperLawyers, Lead Counsel and the National Trial Lawyers Top 100. If you are facing embezzlement charges, do not hesitate to call – 805-273-5611.