Embezzlement is a form of theft, but it’s a very distinct crime due to the relationship with the victim and the methods used. As a violation of state law, embezzlement carries stiff penalties, but the punishment for embezzling money under federal law is even harsher.
An intense investigation often accompanies embezzlement charges, which is why it’s critical to contact our theft lawyers in Pittsburgh as soon as you think you’re a target. Our legal services are a valuable asset from the pre-arrest stages through questioning, and especially in the event of a trial.
At Worgul, Sarna & Ness, Criminal Defense Attorneys, LLC, we know what you’re facing and what it will take to move past embezzlement charges. Contact us at (412) 281-2146 or online to set up a free appointment with our Pittsburgh embezzlement attorneys.
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.
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.
Examples of Embezzlement
Embezzlement is most common in 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 relationship, 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.
Embezzlement Laws & Criminal Charges
Under both US and Pennsylvania law, the prosecution must file embezzlement charges within five years of the initial act in furtherance of embezzlement. If you aren’t arrested before this time, you have a valid defense to the embezzlement charges. Here is more information on embezzlement laws in Pennsylvania and in the United States:
Pennsylvania Embezzlement Laws
Pennsylvania’s embezzlement statute goes by the term “failure to make required disposition” of funds or property you received from another person. Essentially, it’s a misappropriation of assets by an individual to whom they’ve been entrusted. The aspect of the offense that’s unique from other theft crimes is that you initially held the property legally, either through an agreement or as part of a fiduciary duty. At some point after receiving the funds, you failed to dispose of them as intended and instead dealt with the property as if it were your own.
Another way you could be charged with embezzlement under state law is if you were supposed to reserve your own property to make specified payments or other disposition, but failed to do so. Co-mingling funds is covered by the embezzlement statute, in a situation where it’s impossible to separate your own property from that of the victim.
Embezzlement charges commonly arise in the context of employment or in corporate settings. Accountants, corporate officers, and related fiduciaries have access to or lawful possession of assets as part of their jobs. The offense occurs when they convert corporate property for their own private use.
Federal Embezzlement Laws
Under federal law, taking federally-owned money or property that you had legal access to manage or monitor for your own gain is considered embezzlement. Federal embezzlement includes theft from federal agencies and contractors.
For example, it is embezzlement if a grant officer in a federal agency steals funds she is supposed to monitor, or if a subcontractor remodeling a U.S. government office takes home the tiles he was supposed to install. Bank and credit union employees who steal funds also risk being arrested on federal embezzlement charges.
Penalties and Jail Time for Embezzlement Charges in PA
In both the state and federal statutes, the penalties for an embezzlement conviction are based on the value of the misappropriated property. Specific sentences will vary according to circumstances such as a prior criminal record and federal sentencing guidelines.
For example, you could be charged with misdemeanor embezzlement in Pennsylvania at three different levels:
- If the value is under $50: Third-degree misdemeanor, with a maximum punishment of one-year incarceration and a $2,500 fine.
- If the value is at least $50 but less than $200: Second-degree misdemeanor, which carries a fine of up to $5,000 and jail time of up to two years.
- If the value is between $200 and $2,000: First-degree misdemeanor, which could lead to five years’ in custody and a fine up to $10,000.
Misappropriated property higher than $2,000 becomes felony embezzlement. You could be sentenced to a maximum of seven years’ incarceration plus a maximum fine of $15,000. Note that these sentencing details are for embezzlement first-time offenders. The penalties increase for individuals with a prior criminal history.
Federal Sentencing for Embezzlement
Property valued at more or less than $1,000 is what separates felony from misdemeanor embezzlement under the federal statute. In addition, the duration of the embezzlement scheme, the extent of trust, and your criminal history may be considered as part of the federal sentencing guidelines.
- Embezzling U.S. government money or property worth less than $1,000 is a misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in prison and a fine of up to $100,000.
- Embezzling more than $1,000 in federal money or property is punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a fine of $250,000.
- Embezzling printing devices, tools, stamps, or other implements to create items the U.S. government circulates (such as money, federal bonds, certificates, coupons, or postage stamps) is punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
- If you are a federal official, employee, or agent, and you embezzle less than $1,000 of public money, you can be punished with as much as a year in prison and a fine of up to $100,000.
- If you are a federal official, employee, or agent, and you embezzle more than $1,000 of public money, you can be punished with as much as 10 years in prison. You may have to pay a $250,000 fine or a fine that is equal to the amount of money you embezzled, whichever amount is more.
- If you are a federal court employee and you are found guilty of embezzling less than $1,000, you can be punished with up to a year in prison, fined up to $100,000, or both.
- If you are a federal court employee and you are found guilty of embezzling more than $1,000, you can be punished with up to 10 years in prison. You may also be fined $250,000 or double the money embezzled, whichever amount is greater.
Specific sentences will vary according to circumstances such as a prior criminal record and federal sentencing guidelines. You can see that US criminal procedure is very different from Pennsylvania law. For this reason, it’s essential to retain an embezzlement lawyer who is properly licensed, knowledgeable, and can handle cases in both federal and state courts.
Defenses Against Embezzlement Charges
Besides the statute of limitations, there are additional defenses in embezzlement cases, such as:
- Mistakes or Accounting Errors;
- Unintentional acts;
- Lack of sufficient evidence; and
- Other defenses, depending on your circumstances.
You should keep in mind that the existence of a strong defense doesn’t automatically mean charges for embezzling money will be dropped or that you will be acquitted. Even if you were falsely accused of embezzlement, it’s necessary to get the necessary information before the judge and jury. An embezzlement attorney can assist with gathering evidence and ensuring it is admissible in court. Your lawyer will also develop a solid defense strategy, which includes presenting arguments in court. Without a legal background, you’re at a disadvantage when fighting an experienced prosecuting attorney in an embezzlement case.
Our Team of Pittsburgh Embezzlement Lawyers Can Help
If you have been indicted for embezzlement or you think you are being investigated, do not delay in hiring a federal criminal attorney who can begin preparing your defense. An embezzlement conviction will mean severe and lasting consequences for the rest of your life. Having an attorney who can defend you aggressively against your charges can help mitigate the consequences or help you avoid them altogether.