What is Federal Embezzlement?

Embezzlement is a crime of trust in which any individual who has lawfully obtained access to any type of property or assets uses said access as a means of stealing, misappropriating, or transferring ownership. Embezzlement typically takes place when someone who is entrusted to provide expert services, such as an accountant, uses his or her specialized skills in conjunction with unsupervised access to assets to enrich himself or herself. Embezzlement can occur in relation to many different categories of tangible assets.

Embezzlement Laws

Embezzlement typically becomes a federal crime when it involves the agencies of the United States government. However, this is not the only way embezzlement can fall under federal jurisdiction. For example, businesses who have gained access to U.S government property or who have been paid from taxpayer monies, such as contractor organizations, may fall prey to or be the alleged culprit in federal embezzlement. This is the case if the federal government has, for example, rented, leased, or compensated for the temporary use of any private assets or properties that the company may hold.

Embezzlement Crimes & Charges

When determining which federal embezzlement laws might be applicable in a given situation, it is important to understand precisely what value of money or property was impacted by the particular act of theft:

If the impacted items are valued $1,000 or more, regardless of whether they consist of tangible property, public records, or other materials, fines and jail time may be possible. Generally speaking, the fine may not exceed $250,000, and the jail time may not exceed a maximum of ten years.

In cases where the item of value is worth less than $1,000, the maximum fine is significantly less. The maximum fine then becomes $100,000, and the maximum jail sentence decreases to one year.

Embezzlement of any tools or instruments that can be used in production of counterfeit currency is considered an aggravated crime. In this case, the $250,000 fine becomes the maximum, with a maximum imprisonment term of ten years. These provisions are most typically invoked in relation to the United States Treasury.

Embezzling public money is a common application of federal embezzlement laws. Accountants of public funds, acting under that authority, may receive enhanced penalties for embezzlement. Just as above, the $1,000 benchmark determines the suitable sentence: Embezzling anything with a value of $1,000 or more results in a maximum fine of $250,000 and a maximum ten year term in prison, while less results in a substantially reduced fine, usually up to the value of the embezzlement, and up to a year in prison.

Embezzlement Punishment

The benchmark of $1,000 value is used to determine whether federal embezzlement will be treated as a felony or as a misdemeanor. Embezzlement convictions where the maximum potential fine is $250,000 are considered felonies, while other convictions are considered to be the less serious misdemeanor.

Prison terms can range from a few months in jail to more than thirty years. In addition to the amount stolen, the time period of the activities, and the extent of the official trust that was placed in a defendant, his or her criminal history is also considered.

Embezzlement Sentencing Guidelines

A point system has been developed for determining the appropriate sentence in an embezzlement case. The "Base Offense Level" represents the lowest number of points possible in any federal embezzlement case, with six points total. The highest number of points possible is 36. Six points are assigned if the loss is $5,000 or less; 36 requires that the victim's loss be over $400 million.

Embezzlement Statute of Limitations

Under federal requirements, virtually all noncapital federal crimes have a statute of limitations of five years. This means that the perpetrator cannot be prosecuted unless an indictment is enacted within five years of the suspected offense. Embezzlement is not one of the few crimes where federal law provides for a longer statute of limitations.

Embezzlement Cases

Major embezzlement cases have a tendency to make news. Some of the biggest include:

With a payoff of more than $50 billion, the Bernard ("Bernie") Madoff "Ponzi scheme" is still considered to be one of the largest in world history. Uncovered in 2008, it resulted in worldwide investor panic based on the ruined reputation of "genius" investor Madoff, who bilked investors under the cover of a conservative portfolio management strategy. (Forbes)

One of the most common types of embezzlement scheme is the "Ponzi Scheme," named after fraudster Charles Ponzi, who launched his scheme in 1917 after immigrating to the United States from Italy. After his legitimate investment plan using International Reply Coupons faltered, he began actively cheating investors with claims of doubling their money within 90 days. (Christian Science Monitor)

Embezzlement Quick Links & References

United States Codes and Statutes Pertaining to Federal Embezzlement Charges

Legal Reference from Cornell University School of Law on Federal Embezzlement

Facing Embezzlement Charges Related to Federal Money or Property in District Court

2011 Federal Sentencing Guidelines Manual for Embezzlement and Related Crimes

All About Embezzlement Law and the Unique Aspects of Embezzlement Crimes

Talk to a Lawyer

Start here to find criminal defense lawyers near you.

How it Works

  1. Briefly tell us about your case
  2. Provide your contact information
  3. Choose attorneys to contact you

Talk to a Defense attorney

We've helped 95 clients find attorneys today.

How It Works

  1. Briefly tell us about your case
  2. Provide your contact information
  3. Choose attorneys to contact you