Embezzlement or an Accounting Error?
It’s one thing to make an error that leads to the books being off by a few dollars, but the stakes are a lot higher if you’re accused of something that looks like embezzlement.
Typically classified as a white-collar crime, embezzlement is a complicated offense. It describes a situation where a person had lawful possession of something, but engaged in unlawful acts. The timing, intent, and nature of the alleged misconduct are key issues, which is you should rely on an embezzlement lawyer for help in fighting the charges.
Generally, embezzlement encompasses elements of theft crimes and fraud. The specific definition of embezzlement is misappropriation of property by someone who initially had proper, legal custody.
There are certain essential elements to secure a conviction, so a prosecutor must prove:
- There was the existence of a fiduciary relationship between the parties, which may be individuals or entities
- One party placed or entrusted property to the other, such that the possession of it was lawful
- Sometime thereafter, the person or entity in possession fraudulently converted the proper for their own use
- The offender converted the property with an intent to permanently deprive the rightful owner of using it.
Embezzlement is most common in the corporate or employment settings, where an employee is entrusted with company property. However, it can occur in the context of any principal/agent or fiduciary relationships, such as the administrator of a trust or estate.
Acts of embezzlement may include:
- Using funds, such as spending petty cash
- Selling property to a third party
- Giving property away
- Destroying or damaging property to the point that it’s unusable
- Permanently withholding property from the rightful owner.
Accounting Mistakes and Proving Intent
While each of the four elements mentioned is essential to the crime of embezzlement, one in particular addresses an accounting mistake: Intent. By definition, a mistake is an inadvertent error in judgment.
When it occurs in the context of accounting, there may be unfortunate consequences that result in the conversion of the principal’s property. However, conversion without intent is not embezzlement. Unless the prosecutor can prove that your purpose in handling the property was to convert it while it was in your lawful possession, you don’t have the required intent.
Defenses to Embezzlement
Besides the lack of intent that may occur due to an accounting mistake, there are other strategies for fighting embezzlement charges. The first is to identify and attack weaknesses in other areas of the case.
For instance, you may contest that there was a fiduciary relationship, or dispute conversion to the extent of depriving the owner. When it’s your turn to defend yourself, your lawyer may also present evidence showing you:
- Converted the property for legitimate business purposes, such as paying a bill
- Were under duress, believing that you were at risk of harm or loss unless you took action
- Converted the property under circumstances indicating entrapment, in which you were coerced into doing something that you wouldn’t through your own free will.
Retain an Embezzlement Attorney Right Away
Simple accounting mistakes present little cause for concern, but you’ll need experienced counsel if you’re facing criminal charges for embezzlement. A conviction could mean incarceration, hefty fines, and other penalties, especially if the circumstances lead officials to charge you with a federal crime.
Even if you have extensive experience in accounting principles, you put your rights at risk if you don’t get legal help to protect your interests.
Contact an embezzlement lawyer with Worgul, Sarna & Ness Criminal Defense Attorneys right away to learn more about potential defense strategies. Call (412) 281-2146 to set up a free and confidential consultation.