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What is Embezzlement?

Turn on the nightly news and almost every week it seems as though someone else is being charged with “embezzlement.” But what does the term actually mean and how can you be charged with it in Washington State? The popular news stories are usually reporting on high-profile white-collar criminals who are accused of stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from their employer as part of some elaborate accounting scheme. But did you know that you could potentially be accused of embezzlement for things like using a company credit card to pay for your own personal expenses, or even for taking office supplies from your place of work? This blog tries to cut through the media hype surrounding this type of theft crime to explain what embezzlement actually is under Washington State law and describe the penalties associated with it.

“Theft” Defined

The Washington State Revised Code, in RCW 9A.56.020(1), defines “theft” in part as when an individual “wrongfully obtains” or “exerts unauthorized control” over someone else's property, with the intent to deprive that other person of his or her property. RCW 9A.56.010(22) further defines “wrongfully obtains” or “exerts unauthorized control” as occurring when either:

  • A person takes the property of another that he or she does not legally possess; or
  • A person who legally has someone else's property in his or her possession under a position of trust or responsibility subsequently “secretes, withholds, or appropriates” that other person's property for his or her own use.

The first of these definitions for “wrongfully obtains” or “exerts unauthorized control” covers what most people think of as generic “theft” – when one person unlawfully takes property that is controlled and owned by a different person. The second definition covers what is commonly referred to as “embezzlement.”

Embezzlement is Just Another Word for Theft

The term “embezzlement” refers to a particular kind of theft, one where an individual who is in a position of trust or responsibility over another person's property or money fraudulently takes that property or money for himself or herself. People usually associate this kind of theft crime with white-collar financial workers and it often comes up in the context of an employer/employee relationship when, for example, an employee responsible for a company's finances is accused of manipulating accounting records to hide the theft of company funds.

In this way, embezzlement is characterized as a kind of theft that involves a breach of trust. For example, take the accountant who skims money from his or her company's bank accounts, or the payroll employee who uses company credit cards to pay off his or her own personal debts or fund lavish personal trips. In each situation, you have an individual – the accountant or the payroll employee – who has legal responsibility for the company's property – in this case, the company funds or the company credit card. Unlike in the first definition of “theft” in the Washington State code, where the accused does not have possession of the taken property, with embezzlement, the accused individual had legal control over or possession of the property in question. What makes these individuals actions constitute theft is the unauthorized use of the other person or entity's property for the benefit of the individual.

To that end, embezzlement is not restricted solely to situations of employees taking funds from employers. Anyone who has lawful possession of someone else's money or goods – whether that property is owned by a company or another individual – and who then fraudulently takes or uses that property for their own unsanctioned use, is embezzling and could potentially be charged with theft

Penalties for Theft in Washington State

In Washington State, the severity of the punishment you could face for a theft crime like embezzlement depends on the value of the property that is taken. RCW 9A.56.030 through RCW 9A.56.050 define the three degrees of theft charges:

1. Theft in the first degree – Class B felony

According to RCW 9A.56.030, a person is guilty of first-degree theft if he or she commits theft of property that exceeds $5,000 in value. Theft in the first degree is a Class B felony punishable by confinement in a state correctional facility for up to ten years. See RCW 9A.20.021(1)(b). Adult offenders can face a fine of up to $20,000 instead of, or in addition to, potential incarceration.

2. Theft in the second degree – Class C felony

According to RCW 9A.56.040, a person is guilty of second-degree theft if he or she commits theft of property that is between $750 and $5,000 in value. Theft in the second degree is a Class C felony punishable by confinement in a state correctional facility for up to five years. See RCW 9A.20.021(1)(c). Adult offenders can face a fine of up to $10,000 instead of, or in addition to, potential incarceration.

3. Theft in the third degree – gross misdemeanor

According to RCW 9A.56.050, a person is guilty of third-degree theft if he or she commits theft of property that is less than $750 in value. Theft in the third degree is a gross misdemeanor punishable by confinement of up to a year in county jail. See RCW 9A.20.021(2). Adult offenders can face a fine of up to $5,000 instead of, or in addition to, potential incarceration.

“Let My Extensive Experience as a Former Prosecutor Work For You.”

Theft charges for embezzlement are serious charges and can threaten your reputation and your livelihood. If you have been accused of embezzlement, you need to speak with an attorney right away. The Law Office of Steve Karimi is dedicated to protecting your constitutional rights and freedom. Experienced criminal defense attorney Steve Karimi will take all measures necessary to fight for your legal rights and to advocate for your best interests. As a former prosecutor, he understands the options available to you and will use his experience to achieve the best possible resolution for you.

If you or a loved one has been accused of embezzlement or charged with a theft crime in King County, Snohomish County, Skagit County, Whatcom County, or Kittitas County, contact the Law Office of Steve Karimi today at 206-621-8777 to schedule a free and confidential initial consultation. After normal business hours, you can contact us using our 24-hour call service at 206-660-6200.

Contact Us

If you were arrested or a loved one has been charged with a crime in Seattle or surrounding areas of Washington State, the Law Offices of Steve Karimi can help. Call 206-621-8777 during regular business hours or 206-660-6200 24 hours a day for a free consultation.

Seattle Defense Lawyer

Named a "rising star" in criminal defense by Washington Law and Politics magazine, Mr. Karimi is a former prosecutor for King County who uses his insight into prosecution strategies to protect his clients' rights in criminal court.