Embezzlement is a white collar crime that happens when a person entrusted to handle the finances of another person or business illegally takes the money for their own personal use. Embezzlement is common in situations where an employee, such as a bookkeeper, with access to their employer’s checks, cash, and bank accounts, illegally writes checks to themselves, steals cash, or withdraws money from business bank accounts.

Embezzlement can be charged as either a felony or a misdemeanor crime, depending on the amount of money involved. States have different definitions for what constitutes a felony or misdemeanor embezzlement.

Depending on the facts of the case, embezzlement can be charged as a federal crime. Federal embezzlement cases typical involve governmental employees or elected officials that embezzle public funds.

What is White Collar Crime?

White collar crimes, like embezzlement, are crimes that are financial in nature and do not involve violence or cause bodily injury towards another person. While the victim is still harmed by a white collar crime, the damages that they suffer are typically limited to financial losses and earnings.

What is a Fiduciary Relationship?

In order to be charged with embezzlement, there must have been a fiduciary relationship between the two parties involved in the situation. A fiduciary relationship exists when a person or business gives an individual the right or duty to act on their behalf when handing their money or managing their finances. Fiduciary relationships are common in situations where a business hires a bookkeeper, accountant, or payroll manager to handle and oversee the financial aspects of the business.

The person charged with embezzlement must have accessed the stolen funds by using their fiduciary powers to gain access to cash, blank checks, or financial accounts. In addition, embezzlement charges require that the individual had the intent to steal the money from the other person or business, meaning that the individual knew that their actions would result in the other party losing their own money.

What are the Consequences of a Conviction for Embezzlement?

The punishments imposed for an embezzlement conviction vary based on the specific facts in each case and typically vary by state. When imposing a sentence, the judge will consider the amount of money embezzled, the time period over which the embezzlement occurred, the financial harm caused to the victim, the intent of the defendant, and any prior embezzlement or financial crime convictions.

Felony embezzlement convictions involve harsher sentences, longer jail time and increased fine payments. In general, punishments may include:

  • Extensive jail or prison time;
  • Probation or parole;
  • Significant fines or restitution payments;
  • Rehabilitation courses;
  • Ineligibility to hold public or elected office;
  • The revocation of professional licenses, such as an accountant certification; and
  • Permanent documentation of the embezzlement conviction on a person’s criminal record which can impact future employment opportunities.

What are the Common Defenses to Embezzlement Charges?

A common defense to a misdemeanor or felony embezzlement charge is that the person charged did not intend to steal the other party’s money. This lack of intent defense may be used if the defendant had planned on returning the money, was unaware that they took money, or never intended to take the money for their own personal gain.

Using this defense, a defendant can also argue that they removed the money from an account by mistake, were following directions, or did so as requested by the other party. In addition, defendants may argue that no fiduciary relationship existed between themselves and the other person or business involved.

How Do I Protect Myself from Embezzlement?

There are steps that you can take to recognize embezzlement and protect yourself or your business from becoming the victim of embezzlement. When entrusting an individual with a fiduciary relationship such as an accountant or bookkeeper, it’s still important to oversee their work to ensure that money does not go missing.

Make sure to keep accurate financial records relating to bank accounts, issued checks, and cash deposits. A loss in profits, delayed bank deposits, suspicious transfers between accounts, and missing checks may be signs of embezzlement.

If you feel that you have been the victim of embezzlement, you should consider contacting your local police department as soon as possible for help with your case.  

Should I Contact an Attorney if I’ve Been Charged with Embezzlement?

If you have been charged with a misdemeanor or felony embezzlement, you may be able to defend yourself against the charges. The criminal court system can be confusing and intimidating if you find yourself in a situation where you have to defend against embezzlement charges. An embezzlement conviction can have a lasting impact on your personal and professional life.

For the best outcome in your situation, you should consider speaking with a criminal defense attorney. An attorney will represent your bests interests in court and explain your rights and legal options to you.