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California Embezzlement Laws

Overview of California Embezzlement Laws

Embezzlement is a property crime under the state laws of California. The crime refers to the unlawful retention of property that was entrusted to the defendant. State law distinguishes embezzlement from larceny or theft by requiring a fiduciary relationship between the defendant and the victim. In a fiduciary relationship, the party entrusted with money or property has specified duties. Parties with fiduciary duties include trustees, agents, corporate officers, and public officers. Embezzlement reflects a defendant's betrayal of those duties.

Intent Requirement

To prove embezzlement, a prosecutor must show that the defendant had a specific intent to defraud the victim of property entrusted to the defendant through the fiduciary relationship. The defendant must have intended to deprive the victim of the property. For example, the defendant may have spent funds for purposes other those specified by the parties' agreement or fiduciary relationship. Under California law, an intent to temporarily deprive the owner of the property will usually be sufficient for an embezzlement charge. Some states other than California do require an intent to permanently deprive the owner of the property.

California Embezzlement Laws Overview


California Penal Code Sections 484-502.9
California Penal Code Sections 503-515


  • Theft of property valued below $950 results in a charge of petty theft, which may be punished by a fine of up to $1,000, a term of imprisonment lasting up to six months, or both.
  • Theft of property valued above $950 results in a charge of grand theft. The crime of grand theft generally leads to prosecution as a felony. Accordingly, a conviction for the embezzlement of property valued above $950 will likely require felony sentencing. The defendant may receive a sentence for a term of imprisonment ranging from six months to three years. The state may also consider whether any aggravated factors justify an increased punishment during felony sentencing.

Possible Defenses

  • Claim of good faith: The defendant openly took the property with a good faith belief of title. However, this defense likely does not apply if the defendant kept the property of another as compensation for debts owed to the defendant.
  • Claim of authority: The defendant can show that the property was properly taken during the scope of duties through a power-of-attorney or trust instrument, or through another arrangement requiring the acts of an agent.
  • No demand: While a demand is not explicitly required by law as an element of the crime, the owner of the property should make a demand or written request for the return of the property. The defendant's refusal, if any, may reflect the defendant's criminal intent. If the owner does not make a demand, the defendant may be able to offer a defense of neglect or another non-criminal reason for the lack of return.

Embezzlement of Public Funds

Cal Penal Code Section 514: State law establishes a distinct punishment for the embezzlement of federal, state, or local public funds. Embezzlement of public funds results in a sentence of imprisonment in state prison as well as a bar from holding a public office in the future.

Note: State laws are always subject to change through the passage of new legislation, rulings in the higher courts (including federal decisions), ballot initiatives, and other means. While we strive to provide the most current information available, please consult an attorney or conduct your own legal research to verify the state law(s) you are researching.

California Codes and Legal Research Options

Additional Resources

If you have additional questions about California’s embezzlement laws, click on the following links:

Get Legal Help with Your Embezzlement Case in California

Embezzlement is a white collar crime with very serious penalties. If you have questions about how to defend against your case, a good first step is to speak to a California criminal defense attorney who specializes in embezzlement cases. A good attorney can review the law and facts of your case, help you chart out any possible defenses, and be by your side in court.

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