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Understanding embezzlement and its defenses

Embezzlement is, essentially, a type of theft that's accomplished through deception and an abuse of privilege or power rather than the kind of theft that happens with a mask and a gun. Embezzlement occurs when someone who has lawful access to money diverts it away from its proper owner or purpose for personal use.

For example, imagine that two of the nuns at a Catholic school are in charge of collecting donations, school fees and tuition from their charges. However, the nuns had a gambling problem -- so they quietly siphoned whatever cash they could away from the school's coffers and into their own pockets in order to fund their trips to Las Vegas. That's exactly what happened in an embezzlement case that was recently uncovered in California. Sadly, similar crimes happen all the time.

Embezzlement can also involve personal property or real estate, rather than money. For example, imagine that a company does a mass update of its computer system. An industrious employee sees the potential for profit and quietly starts putting the laptops that are being replaced up for sale on eBay rather than putting them into the storage closet as directed. There are numerous different ways that people can embezzle. Some are simple (like paying an employee that doesn't actually exist) and some are more elaborate (like a Ponzi scheme designed to defraud investors).

In order to be guilty of embezzlement, the prosecution has to prove a number of things, including:

  • Your fiduciary duty to the other party
  • The fact that you used that relationship to acquire the embezzled funds or property
  • That you acted intentionally and not through simple oversight or some kind of mistake
  • That you claimed the money or property for yourself or transferred it to another person

If you're accused of embezzlement, it's inside those elements that you defense case will most likely lie. Your attorney will try to prove that the prosecution simply can't meet its burden on one or more points.

Embezzlement is a serious charge, so it's wise to be aggressive about your own defense and seek help early on.

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