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Embezzlement Laws in California – Penal Code Section 503

Posted by Philip Israels | Aug 20, 2019

The crime of “embezzlement” is defined under California Penal Code Section 503, which describes this white collar offense as fraudulent appropriation of property by somebody who was entrusted. It is also commonly referred to as employee theft.

Embezzlement is different than most common California theft crimes because there is a requirement that the property taken had been entrusted to the defendant by the owner. In fact, it's not possible to the be convicted of PC 503 embezzlement unless the defendant possessed property they were given consent to access.

Embezzlement cases in California don't always mean large sums of money were taken from a manager at a big company. There have been many types of embezzlement cases filed against a wide range of people in a position of trust in small corporations where only a small amount of money or property was allegedly taken.

It should be noted that you can still be prosecuted and convicted of Penal Code 503 embezzlement if you didn't have a specific intent to keep the money or property permanently.

For example, an employee who was entrusted by their company to make bank deposits decides to take a portion of a deposit one day to pay some personal debts with a genuine intent to pay it back. This employee could still be convicted under PC 503 because they unlawfully possessed company earnings entrusted to them. Their genuine intent to pay it back later is not a valid legal defense.

Penal Code 503 embezzlement is a “wobbler,” meaning the case can be filed as either a misdemeanor or felony crime. A conviction can result in severe penalties.

To give readers a better understanding of PC 503 embezzlement cases, our Los Angeles criminal defense lawyers provide an overview below.

Legal Description of Embezzlement – Penal Code 503

California Penal Code 503 PC defines embezzlement as the “fraudulent appropriation of property by a person to whom it has been entrusted”

In order to be convicted of PC 503 embezzlement, the prosecutor has to be able to prove – beyond any reasonable doubt – all of the elements of the crime described in CALCRIM 1806 Jury Instructions.

  • The owner of property entrusted their property to the defendant
  • The owner only did so because they trusted the defendant
  • Defendant fraudulently used owner's property for their own benefit
  • When defendant acted, their intent was to deprive the owner of the property's use

It's important to note there has to have been a relationship of trust. In most PC 503 embezzlement cases, the defendant was a manager or employee in the owner's company that was given the right to handle property.

In simple terms, a crime of embezzlement occurs when the defendant fraudulently uses company property for their own personal benefit. To act in fraudulent manner in the context of embezzlement means the defendant took advantage of somebody, or they caused loss to the property owner because the violated the trust given to them.

It's also important to make note that a defendant can't be convicted Penal Code 503 embezzlement unless they used the taken property in a manner that benefited them. Intent is key factor as it must be shown the defendant specifically intended to deprive the owner of the property, even if their intent was temporary. In all embezzlement cases, “intent” is the primary element of the crime.

What are the Penalties for Embezzlement?

If convicted on PC 503 embezzlement, the legal penalties depend on the total value of the embezzled property. Embezzlement in California is a form of Penal Code 484a petty theft, or Penal Code 487 grand theft.

If the value of the property was $950 or less, it's a misdemeanor crime. It carries a sentence of up to one year in a county jail and a $1,000 fine.

If the value of the property is greater than $950, it's a “wobbler.” Again, this means the case can be filed as a misdemeanor or felony offense. A felony conviction carries up to 3 years in a California state prison and a $10,000 fine.

If value of the property is greater than $65,000, it's a felony. It will result is an additional one year on your sentence.  If greater than $200,000, an additional two years on the sentence. If greater than $1,300,000, additional three years.

If the embezzled property is greater than $3,200,000, an additional four years can be added to the sentence. If there are aggravating factors, such as the victim was elderly or had an impairment, the sentence can be more severe.

Related California Offenses for Penal Code 503

Penal Code 484(a) – Petty theft
Penal Code 487 – Grand theft
Penal Code 470 – Forgery
Penal Code 459 – Burglary
Penal Code 424 – Misappropriation of Public Funds
Penal Code 496(a) – Receiving Stolen Property

Defenses for Embezzlement – Penal Code 503

There are a wide range of potential legal defenses that can be used for a defendant charged with embezzlement under California Penal Code 503. Of course, every embezzlement case is unique and will first require a close review of the details. The most common defense strategies include:

Lack of intent – As discussed above, an experienced criminal defense lawyer could make an argument there was no specific intent to deprive the owner of the property, or use the property for their own personal benefit. If the prosecutor can't prove intent in an embezzlement case, the defendant has a good chance of avoiding a conviction.

Good faith belief – In some types of embezzlement cases, a criminal defense lawyer could make an argument the defendant had a good faith belief they had a right the property that was taken, even if it turned out to be a mistaken belief. This means the argument is the defendant has a reasonable belief they had a right to the to the property.

False Accusation – In some embezzlement cases, a criminal lawyer could make an argument the arrest and charges were based upon false allegations. For instance, perhaps the alleged victim falsely accused the defendant out of anger or revenge. The goal of course would be to create some type of reasonable doubt.

If you have been accused of embezzlement under California Penal Code Section 503, you need to contact our experienced defense lawyers.

We will work aggressively to secure the best possible outcome on your case. We serve clients throughout Southern California, including the greater Los Angeles area and the San Fernando Valley. We offer a free case evaluation.

About the Author

Philip Israels

Phil Israels was raised in California's Central Valley where he still has family. After graduating from the University of California at Berkeley where he was a member for Zeta Beta Tau fraternity and studied Economics, he continued his education...

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