Review of PC 504 Embezzlement by a Public Officer Laws and Defenses
California Penal Code 504 PC is the statute used by prosecutors to file criminal charges against a public officer for embezzlement in a situation where they fraudulently use any public funds or property in a manner that is not consistent with their official authority.
Put simply, PC 504 embezzlement by a public officer involves the misuse of public money or property and is the more serious form of the white collar crime of embezzlement.
Embezzlement is essentially a theft crime where someone takes money or property that was entrusted to them by someone else, then use it in a fraudulent manner for their own benefit.
Most criminal acts of embezzlement are prosecuted under California Penal Code 503, which is similar to Penal Code 487 grand theft, a “wobbler” offense that can be filed as either a misdemeanor or felony.
Penal Code 504, is used when the person committing the embezzling is a public officer, who are normally employees of state of California, county, or city.
Any public officer who violates Penal Code 504 PC can be found guilty of embezzlement, which is a form of misappropriation of public resources.
Being accused of embezzlement can turn your world upside down, particularly as a public officer.
This page by our Los Angeles criminal defense lawyers walks you through the basics of California's embezzlement law so you can better understand the charges against you and feel more control.
What Law Covers Embezzlement by a Public Officer in California?
As noted above, public officials charged with embezzlement in California are prosecuted under Penal Code 504 PC, which states that any public official is guilty of embezzlement if they:
- fraudulently take any state property or funds in their possession, or under their control, to use it for purposes unrelated to the lawful execution of their public duty, or
- conceal such property or funds with a fraudulent intent to appropriate it for purposes unrelated to the lawful execution of their public duty.
In order for a public officer to face charges under this statute, they have to use the funds or property in a way that exceeds their official authority.
The word “fraudulently” is generally described as the use of trickery or dishonestly to defraud someone.
Who is Considered a Public Officer?
Under the law, public officers are any person who works for a California county, city, district, authority, or municipal corporation or its subdivision.
Public officers can also be members of state boards, agencies, or bureau. In short, anyone employed by the state, whether governor, city council member, secretary, clerk, or an agent of any public employee, can be charged with embezzlement under PC 504.
What does fraudulent mean?
In this context of Penal Code 504 PC, a public officer acts fraudulently when they intentionally commit a deceptive act that brings an undeserved benefit to themselves or causes harm or loss to the State.
Understanding Embezzlement Charges, Convictions, and Penalties
What kind of embezzlement charges might I face under PC 504? When accused of violating PC 504, you may be charged with Penal Code 484/488 PC petty theft or Penal Code 487 PC grand theft.
- PC 484/488 Petty theft. The prosecution will pursue a petty theft charge if the funds or property at issue is worth less than $950. Petty theft is always a misdemeanor crime and punishable by up to six months in a county jail and a fine up to $1,000.
- PC 487 Grand theft. You will face a grand theft if the funds or property at issue is worth more than $950. Grand theft charges are called “wobblers” in California as they can be either a misdemeanor or a felony. The prosecution will decide which to pursue based upon your past criminal record, the value of the property involved, and the complexity of the crime.
What Kind of Punishment Will I Face If Convicted?
The penalties and punishment for an embezzlement conviction depend upon the charge. Typically, you'd face one of the three following sentences:
Jail time + Fine. A PC 484/488 petty theft conviction can result in up to six months in county jail and a maximum fine of $1,000.
Prison time + Fine. A PC 487 grand Theft conviction charged as a felony can bring a sentence of up to three years in state prison and a fine of up to $10,000.
Grand theft charged as a misdemeanor could bring up to a year in county jail and a fine up to $1,000.
Under probation, the court would not sentence you to jail or prison time but would require you to follow a strict set of rules for a specified period.
For example, you might have to perform community service, attend counselling sessions, pay restitution, and regularly meet with the court or officials who monitor your progress.
If you fail to meet your probation terms, the court might revoke it and order you to jail or prison.
Defenses for Penal Code 504 PC
With a strong defense, you may be able to have the embezzlement charges dismissed or reduced. There are several common defenses we can use to challenge the charge of PC 504 embezzlement by a public officer:
You were not a public officer at the time of the charge
If you can show that you were not a public officer at the time of the alleged crime, you cannot be charged under PC 504.
However, you may still be subject to embezzlement charges under another part of the code, such as Penal Code 503 PC.
Put simply, only people who are public officers can be charged with violating this statute.
You did not commit fraud
As noted above, a public officer must fraudulently use public funds or property in order to be found guilty of violating this statute.
The fraud element of the charge requires the prosecution to show that you intended to use public property to benefit yourself unlawfully.
If there is a rational, lawful explanation for your actions, this may be sufficient to cast reasonable doubt on any alleged intention to commit fraud.
Perhaps there was no actual fraud intended, rather an honest mistake – a good faith error.
You acted under duress
Sometimes, albeit rarely, a public officer may be forced by another person to take actions that amount to embezzlement.
If you can show that someone forced you to misappropriate public property or funds through threats or violence, you may have a valid defense against the embezzlement charge.
Note that someone putting simple pressure on you to act does not amount to duress, rather it would require something much more serious, such as criminal threats of harm to themselves or their family members.
If you are under a criminal investigation, or already arrested and charged with embezzlement by a public official that allegedly violated California Penal Code 504 PC, then you should contact our criminal defense lawyers for an initial consultation.
Depending on the specific details of the case, we may be able to negotiate with the prosecutor for reduced charges or even get the case dropped.
Additionally, it might be possible to avoid the formal filing of criminal charges before court through prefiling intervention – a DA reject.
Eisner Gorin LLP has two offices based in Los Angeles County. Call our law firm at (310) 328-3776, or fill out our contact form.