When does petty theft become embezzlement?

So you stole a stapler from your office because you didn’t have one at home and your kid needed one for a school project. Later that month you took a box of paper clips and then four highlighters and a sheaf of office paper. Maybe you took two or three sheaves over the course of a few months. 

Is this taking for home use, and keeping, a crime? Technically yes. Is it embezzlement?  

Not usually. Embezzlement in the general sense means that you took money that was entrusted to you and then converted it to your own use. For example, if you were entrusted with the office checkbook to make office-related purchases and then wrote checks out of that account to yourself over the course of weeks or months, that would be embezzlement. 

It is not uncommon

Most employers understand that there will be some loss of small property. In fact, over 75% of employees admit that they have at one time or another stolen something from an employer, according to a 2015 U.S. Retail Fraud Survey. It typically takes an employer two years to discover ongoing employee theft. While a missing stapler or highlighter will probably go unnoticed, continued theft costs employers thousands if not millions over time.

There are consequences 

While your employer may not be concerned about small random items, employers are concerned about big ticket items such as high-end materials, computers and on-going theft of money. There are serious consequences to being caught. In California these include: 

  • Up one year in county jail and maximum $1000 fine and restitution for a misdemeanor embezzlement conviction. 
  • You could serve 16 months, 2 years, or 3 years in county jail and face a maximum fine of $10,000 and restitution if you are convicted of felony embezzlement. 

The difference between theft and embezzlement

The main difference between typical theft and embezzlement is that in an embezzlement case the employee has been entrusted with the property by the employer. Embezzlement is theft. If you are caught stealing items with a value over $950 or higher you can be charged with grand theft. If the value or money you embezzled or stole is under $950 you will most likely be charges with petty theft. 

Why isn’t stealing office supplies embezzlement?

There are three bases for your actions to be construed as embezzlement. These are:

  1. Your employer had to have entrusted the money or property to you.
  2. You had to have fraudulently used the property for your own benefit.
  3. You had to have intended to deprive your employer of the property’s use (or deprive your employer of that money). 

A stapler can be used and returned. Highlighters and office paper can be used for work-related business. These items are of little consequence and are generally overlooked by employers.

However, taking larger items such as office furniture or computers or actively using office funds to pay off your own debts is fraudulent and does deprive your employer of property or money. These are serious offenses that require experienced legal representation. 



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