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Defending Embezzlement Charges in California | Zentz & Zentz

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Embezzlement is a serious form of theft. If you are charged with embezzlement, you could face severe legal penalties as well as professional consequences. What sets embezzlement apart from standard theft is that the person charged with embezzlement is accused of misusing, misallocating, or stealing funds entrusted to them by someone else for personal gain. In some cases, an embezzlement charge against an individual or group of individuals may be just one component of a larger white collar crime investigation, and some embezzlement cases are prosecuted at the federal level.

If you have been arrested and charged with embezzlement, your case is likely to involve complex financial questions and touch on various state and government regulations. Depending on the nature of the embezzlement in question, you may face penalties imposed by various government agencies, including the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), or others. You need defense counsel you can trust if you are facing embezzlement charges. A San Diego embezzlement attorney could be your best asset in this difficult situation.

Why Should I Hire a San Diego Embezzlement Attorney?

Every American citizen has the right to obtain legal counsel when they are accused of a crime. If a defendant cannot afford a private defense attorney or does not wish to pay for one, the court can appoint a public defender to represent them free of charge. While this may seem like the best option for avoiding expensive legal fees, you should understand the difference between what you can expect from a public defender and what an experienced private San Diego embezzlement lawyer can offer.

Public defenders must manage several cases at once. This typically leaves them very little time to devote personal attention to any given case. Embezzlement cases often involve highly complex financial matters, extensive documentation review, and in-depth analysis of relevant case law to form a valid defense for the accused. Even the best public defenders can’t offer the comprehensive level of defense counsel that a defendant needs in this type of situation.

Zentz & Zentz is a full-service criminal defense firm that manages a carefully balanced caseload. This ensures we have the flexibility to provide every client we represent with the full scope of our attention, resources, and experience. Our team will carefully review every detail of your case and help you craft a solid defense, potentially uncovering defensive options you may not have considered on your own.

How Hard Is it to Prove Embezzlement Theft?

Embezzlement may seem like a more sophisticated form of theft, and at the fundamental level, this is basically true. However, proving embezzlement is much more complex than proving standard theft. The prosecution must establish four components of embezzlement to succeed with their case against the defendant:

  1. The prosecution must first prove that a fiduciary relationship existed between the defendant and the alleged victim or that the defendant owed some fiduciary duty to the alleged victim. For example, an employer may generate an embezzlement case against one of their employees, claiming the employee stole from the company. Embezzlement may also occur between individuals, such as a trustee accused of misappropriating property from the trust they have been tasked with handling.
  2. The prosecution must prove that the defendant leveraged this fiduciary relationship or duty to misappropriate the funds and/or property in question. Essentially, the prosecution must prove that the defendant used their fiduciary duty for personal gain in some way.
  3. The prosecution must then prove that the defendant took possession of the funds and/or property in question. An actual transfer or transaction must occur for the prosecution to prove embezzlement has occurred.
  4. Finally, the prosecution must offer unambiguous evidence showing the defendant’s actions were intentional. The prosecution may attempt to prove this element of embezzlement by uncovering emails, phone call transcripts, or other records that establish the defendant’s willful intent to embezzle.

Establishing these four elements of embezzlement may seem straightforward, but the actual process of proving them is more complex than most defendants may realize. This can essentially work in a defendant’s favor, but it is never wise to simply hope the prosecution fails to make their case. Being proactive in your defense is the best way to defeat embezzlement charges in San Diego, CA.

Possible Defenses Against Embezzlement Charges

There are several ways a defendant could potentially approach their defense in an embezzlement case. It’s possible for the case to have evolved from erroneous or misinterpreted financial records or false accusations. Your San Diego embezzlement attorney can help you gather any documentation or correspondence records that may help you prove that you have been wrongfully accused.

One of the most viable defenses in an embezzlement case is “absence of intent,” or proving that the defendant never intended to steal from the alleged victim. It’s also possible to prove mental incapacity if you made a mistake in handling your fiduciary while under the influence of medication that limited your decision-making ability. However, voluntary intoxication would not be a viable defense in this situation.

Another potential defense would be proving you acted under duress or that another party illegally coerced you into embezzlement of some kind. The defendant would need to prove they had a legitimate fear of imminent personal harm if they did not engage in the activities in question.

What Is the Punishment for Embezzlement Crimes in California?

If you are charged with embezzlement, it is possible to face not only a criminal case prosecuted by the state but also a civil claim from the alleged victim. For example, if an employee is accused of embezzling company funds, their employer may sue them for restitution, but the state can also file criminal charges against the employee. It is essential for any defendant in this situation to understand that they likely face professional consequences as well. Being found guilty of embezzlement could result in the defendant losing professional licenses, or they may be barred from working in certain industries or capacities in the future.

As far as California’s criminal penalties for embezzlement are concerned, California Penal Code 503 PC outlines these penalties based on the amount stolen by the defendant. Embezzlement is a “wobbler”  offense in California, meaning this charge can “wobble” between the misdemeanor and felony levels based on various aspects of the case. If the amount embezzled was less than $950, it follows the sentencing rules for misdemeanor petty theft. The defendant would face up to six months in county jail, restitution to the victim, and fines. If the amount stolen was more than $950, or if the accused stole an automobile or firearm, the offense constitutes grand theft. This is a felony charge that can lead to up to three years in prison along with restitution to the victim and fines.

Certain aggravating factors in an embezzlement case will also enhance the penalty for the defendant. For example, if the defendant is accused of embezzling from an elder, or if they committed multiple forms of fraud in the same scheme that resulted in a loss of $100,000 or more for the alleged victim, they stand to face much harsher penalties. Fines and incarceration time will increase in proportion to the number of added offenses and the total value of funds and/or property stolen.

What Are the Civil Consequences for Embezzlement?

While the state of California or a federal agency may prosecute a criminal case for embezzlement, the victim of the embezzlement has the right to file a civil claim against the defendant. In most of these situations, defendants face both criminal and civil cases, and having reliable defense counsel is essential for both aspects of an embezzlement case. It’s important to note that the standard of proof for a civil case is less demanding than the standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt” required for conviction in a criminal case. Essentially, it’s possible for a defendant to avoid conviction in their criminal trial due to the prosecution’s inability to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, but they may still face liability in the civil claim filed by the alleged victim.

A San Diego embezzlement lawyer can be invaluable in both the criminal case and the civil case the defendant faces. Even if the defendant manages to avoid conviction in their criminal trial, they still face a difficult battle to avoid liability in a civil claim from the defendant.

It’s important for anyone facing embezzlement charges to acknowledge that if they are found guilty in a criminal trial for embezzlement charges or held liable for a victim’s damages from embezzlement in a civil claim, they will likely face a host of professional consequences beyond the court’s assigned penalties. If the defendant had a professional license of any kind, the oversight board responsible for reviewing their conduct could strip them of their license. The defendant may be unable to advance their career, lose standing in their community, and face difficulties securing financing, financial aid for school, and other consequences.

What to Expect from Your San Diego Embezzlement Lawyer

Defending yourself against conviction in an embezzlement case could be far more difficult than you initially expected but having the right legal team on your side can allow you to approach the situation with confidence. Remember that the laws of due process require the prosecution to establish the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt in a criminal trial. It’s your defense attorney’s job to prevent this from happening, and they may be able to accomplish this in several ways:

  • If you did not intend to embezzle the property in question, your attorney can help you assert the defense of absence of intent.
  • If you made a mistake in handling someone else’s property, your attorney can help you prove that the embezzlement in question was unintentional. For example, if you made a mistake in processing a transaction for a client or a person in your care that was misconstrued as embezzlement.
  • If you had a good faith belief that the property in question rightfully belonged to you, your attorney can help you provide evidence of miscommunication or other factors that led to your good faith belief.
  • A defendant must fraudulently use the embezzled property in question to qualify for conviction. Your attorney may seek to provide exculpatory evidence that shows their client did not cause the loss in question or actively and knowingly deprive the alleged victim of the property in question.

You may have several options for defending yourself against an embezzlement conviction, but it is important to remember that criminal cases for embezzlement often involve additional criminal offenses such as wire fraud, check fraud, and other white collar crimes. Your case could evolve very quickly depending on the aggravating factors and additional offenses listed in the prosecution’s initial case filing.

An experienced San Diego embezzlement lawyer can help you nullify the prosecution’s case at a foundational level, preventing them from proving the four elements of embezzlement necessary for securing a conviction. You will also need their assistance in fighting additional charges if the prosecution’s case is multifaceted. Due to the complex nature of many types of embezzlement, your attorney may need to consult expert witnesses on your behalf to help you form a viable defense. For example, forensic accountants can help you establish a “paper trail” that proves you handled the funds and/or property in question in good faith and simply made a mistake with calculations or transactions.

Find Your Defense Counsel Now

Time is a critical factor in any criminal case. The sooner you secure defense counsel and begin working your defense, the better your chances of defeating the charges against you and avoiding conviction. While it is important to secure legal counsel as quickly as possible after an arrest, it is also vital to be discerning in your choice of defense attorney. The right San Diego embezzlement lawyer can make an enormous difference in the outcome of your case, and your choice of attorney could potentially mean the difference between case dismissal and conviction.

Zentz & Zentz have years of experience handling complex criminal defense cases on behalf of our clients in the San Diego, CA area. We understand the complexities of most white collar crime cases and believe in providing aggressive, client-focused defense counsel to every client we represent. If you are ready to discuss your legal options with a reliable and experienced San Diego embezzlement attorney, contact us today to schedule your consultation with our team.

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