The legal definition of bribery is the offer or acceptance of anything of value in exchange for influence on a government official or employee.

Most people are familiar with the term “bribery." But do you really know what it is? Bribery is often referred to as “greasing the wheels" or “quid pro quo." People have all sorts of clever terms for the corrupt and criminal act of bribery.

In general, bribes can take the form of gifts or payments of money in exchange for favorable treatment, such as awards of government contracts. Other forms of bribes may include property, valuables, privileges, items of value, services, and favors.

This article will provide a brief overview of bribery charges, examples of bribery crimes, and bribery laws in the U.S.

Bribery: An Overview

Bribes are intended to influence or alter the actions of various individuals. They go hand in hand with both political and public corruption. To convict someone of bribery, the prosecutor must show that the defendant intended to influence the person to whom they offered the bribe.

Who Can Be Charged With Bribery?

In most cases, the defendant is charged with the bribery of public officials. Interestingly, the person who offers the bribe — the briber — and the person accepting it can both face charges. Incomplete attempts to bribe or even failure to report conflicts of interest, gifts, or kickbacks received by public officials can also be a crime.

While most bribery cases involve a constituent bribing a public official, public servants can be charged with bribery as well. For example, judges, government officials, and police officers can be charged with bribery. Depending on the state law where the crime takes place, defendants can be charged with first-degree, second-degree, or third-degree bribery.

Elements of a Bribery Charge

If you are charged with bribery, the prosecutor needs to prove that you offered a sum of money or something else of value in exchange for some benefit related to a public servant's official duties. Common examples of such benefits include a vote, a recommendation, a decision, or the use of political influence.

You can be prosecuted for bribery whether you're the person offering a bribe or the official accepting (or asking for) a bribe. Evidence for a bribery charge could include a recorded phone call between a public official and a constituent offering a bribe; texts or emails exchanged between the parties; or a police bodycam video of a driver handing an officer cash during a traffic stop.

Depending on the jurisdiction, a conviction can result in a fine and prison time.

Federal Statute on Bribery

Every state has its own laws prohibiting bribery. The federal government has its own federal statute regarding bribery committed by or against federal employees. These elements include:

  1. The individual being bribed is a "public official," which includes both rank-and-file federal employees and elected officials.
  2. A "thing of value" has been offered, whether it is tangible (such as cash) or intangible (such as the promise of influence or official support).
  3. There's an "official act" that may be influenced by a bribe (such as pending legislation that may have a direct impact on the party offering the bribe).
  4. The public official has the authority or power to commit the official act (for instance, the official is a senator voting on a particular piece of legislation).
  5. Intent must be established on the part of the bribing party to get a desired result (e.g., the intent to sway the vote by handing over an envelope full of cash).
  6. The prosecution must establish a causal connection between the payment and the act, showing something more than a suspicious coincidence.

It is important to note that when public officials are bribed for public action, that action need not be harmful to the public interest in order to be illegal.

Other Examples of Bribery

Bribery can happen in many different contexts — at the state level and in the federal government, as well as in the private sector. In the private sector, bribery is often committed for the purpose of obtaining an advantage in a commercial transaction. In the sporting world, for example, one boxer might offer another a payoff to "throw" an important fight. A gambler may offer to pay a basketball player to "shave" points off the score.

Extortion is another example of bribery. For example, a person may offer a judge money in exchange for an acquittal. These examples are likely to be prosecuted as fraud or racketeering crimes.

It is not only people who hold public office who can be engaged in bribery. Bribery, along with other white-collar crimes, is common in the corporate sector. A company may bribe employees of a rival company for recruitment services or proprietary information. This type of action might not result in a criminal case. It may be resolved in civil court via a breach of contract action.

Crimes Related to Bribery

Federal laws deal with the bribery of a foreign official. The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act of 1977 makes it unlawful for a United States citizen, as well as certain foreign issuers of securities, to pay a foreign official in order to obtain — or retain — business with any person.

Another crime often associated (and sometimes confused) with bribery is extortion. The difference is that bribing someone involves offering a positive reward for compliance, whereas extortion uses threats of violence or other negative acts in exchange for compliance.

Some people also think of embezzlement when they think of bribery. Embezzlement is different from commercial bribery, as it involves an employee stealing money or other items of value from their employer or volunteer organization.

An Attorney Can Help Defend You Against Bribery Charges

If you are charged with federal bribery, commercial bribery, or any other white-collar crime, you should speak with a local criminal defense attorney today to learn more. If the state or federal government files charges against you, there is a good chance authorities have strong evidence to secure a bribery conviction.

If convicted, you will face a possible prison sentence, and the bribery conviction will appear on your criminal record. You want to make sure you have an experienced criminal defense lawyer in your corner — particularly one who specializes in white-collar crime. They'll offer legal advice and help prepare a defense on your behalf.

Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help.

Was this helpful?

Can I Solve This on My Own or Do I Need an Attorney?

  • Complex criminal defense situations usually require a lawyer
  • Defense attorneys can help protect your rights
  • A lawyer can seek to reduce or eliminate criminal penalties

Get tailored advice and ask your legal questions. Many attorneys offer free consultations.


If you need an attorney, find one right now.