People working in public offices, particularly those entrusted with large sums of public money are expected to discharge their duties without trying to enrich themselves faithfully. However, not all such persons can be trusted with public funds, and some end up misappropriating public money. It is a grave offense in California that could leave anyone found guilty of the same facing a lengthy jail term and paying hefty fines.

It is an offense in which high-profile people are mostly charged. Thus, government watchdogs and the police are always on the watch, looking out for anyone that might be misappropriating public funds. Due to this offense's nature, there is a possibility of facing false accusations for mismanaging public funds. That is why at the Orange County Criminal Lawyer, we offer our unbeatable legal defense services to residents of Orange County, CA. We might be able to have your charges dropped or reduced altogether.

Understanding California Misappropriating Public Funds

People appointed to serve in public offices are usually thought of as people of high morals and integrity. These are, in fact, traits that are expected, especially of those people who oversee or those that handle public finances.  However, in most cases, we see the loss of public money to individuals who have been entrusted with the funds meant for public works. Government officials do not always work with oversight, and so, it is easy for them to divert public resources without being caught in action. In California, abuse of public office is a serious felony that is punishable by time behind bars and hefty fines, among other consequences.

Misappropriation of government funds is provided under Section 424 of the California Penal Law. It is the law that makes it illegal for any public officer or anyone entrusted with public funds to use them in other ways other than for what they were designated. Misappropriation of government funds can take several forms, including improper use of public finances, public resources for personal gain, profiting from public resources without authorization, and refusal to transfer or pay public funds, among other similar offenses. It is crucial for anyone serving in public office to understand what this offense entails and be ready for when they or their loved one is charged with misappropriating public money.

Section 424 of the California Penal Law has several ways through which a person can commit this offense. Therefore, the nature of your charges and the penalties you receive after conviction will be based on the part of California law you will have violated.

Ways Through Which Section 424 of California Penal Law Can Be Violated

As mentioned above, the misappropriation of government resources can take several forms. The most popular of these include:

Taking Charge of Public Money Without Authorization

The most common way most government officials misappropriate public funds is by using or taking public funds with no authorization. The person could have used the money for personal  needs or to cater to the needs of another without proper permission. For one to be convicted of this crime, there are facts that the prosecutor must demonstrate in court, which are the elements of the crime. These are:

  • That the offender was a government officer working for the local or state government, or he/she was responsible for the safekeeping, receipt, disbursement or transfer of public funds
  • That he/she used public funds in his/her way or to help another person other than what the funds were meant for, without authorization.
  • That the offender was well aware that misuse of public funds was against the law or failing to inquire whether he/she was allowed to misappropriate the public funds or not was criminal negligence

Let us discuss each element in detail to understand them better:

Public Officer/Person Trusted With Public Money

This law requires that the alleged offender be a government officer. In this case, a government officer will be any employee or official of the local or state government or anyone working with a government agency. It may include the following persons:

  • Elected officials
  • Appointed officials
  • Lawyers or accountants working for the government
  • Rank-and-file public employees

You could also face charges for government money misappropriation if the money was entrusted with you in the first place. It applies to those people who might be entrusted with the duties or responsibilities regarding safekeeping, receipt, and expenditure of public money.

Example: Jim manages a nonprofit organization that feeds the homeless in his town. His organization depends on the money that it receives from the state government. In turn, the government closely monitors all the organization’s activities to ensure that things are run smoothly.  Though Jim is not a government employee, he is charged with government funds' receipt and disbursement. If he takes part of the money for personal use or the benefit of another person, he could be charged for misappropriating government money.

Misappropriation of Government Money

As used in this law, misappropriating government money means using the money for personal gain or the purpose of another person who could be a family member or friend.

Criminal Negligence or Knowledge

This section of the law requires that the offender fully understand the nature of the offense they are committing to be found guilty of the same. In this case, the offender must know the following:

  • Using public funds for personal gain or using the same funds to help another person is a criminal offense
  • Failing to find out whether or not it is contrary to the law to misappropriate public funds is criminal negligence

Note that the law does not require the offender to know the full details of the law regarding public money appropriation. As long as he/she was aware that their conduct was illegal, they will be found guilty of the offense. What matters is that the offender is aware of a law prohibiting the conduct they were engaged in.

As used in this context, criminal negligence refers to an offense that is graver than ordinary negligence. Ordinary negligence occurs when a person fails to exercise reasonable or ordinary care. On the other hand, criminal negligence is an aggravated, reckless, or gross form of ordinary negligence.

Example: On her first try at politics, Mary gets the position of a town manager. After a few days in office, one town resident comes to the office, claiming that he has not received the monthly stipends he always receives because of his disability. Mary does not know that the man is lying, and is taking advantage of her ignorance of how matters are run in the office to get some money fraudulently. Without thinking twice, Mary writes a check in his name.

Mary is guilty of misappropriation of government money with criminal negligence. Mary could have inquired about the monthly stipends before writing the check. In this case, criminal negligence comes when she fails to determine whether or not what she was about to do was legal.

Profiting From, Loaning or Misusing Government Money Without Authorization

It is the second way in which a person can commit the offense of misappropriating public money. In this case, the crime is committed when a person makes unauthorized loans from public money without authority. The elements for this offense, which the prosecutor must demonstrate in court beyond a reasonable doubt for the offender to be found guilty, are:

  • That the offender was an official of local government or state, or a person who has been responsible for the safekeeping, receipt, disbursement or transfer of public money
  • That there was a non penal law in place which prohibited him/her from lending public funds or using the money under specific circumstances
  • That the offender loaned government funds, used government money for unauthorized purposes or gained profits from public funds
  • That the offender was well aware that their conduct was lawful, or he/she was informed that failing to find out whether or not their actions were unlawful is criminal negligent

Example: As a school financial manager, Pauline has access to all school funds and is allowed to make withdrawals whenever there is a need. Her best friend is in dire need of some money to clear a hospital bill. She asks Pauline's help, with a promise to repay the money with some interest as soon as possible. Pauline does not have the funds at the moment, but she figures out that she can borrow some from the school account, and return it before anyone could realize it.

Pauline is trying to profit from school money, which is also a form of appropriation of public funds.

False Account or Fraudulently Destroying or Altering Accounts

False accounting is also a way through which a public official can misappropriate public money in California. Elements for this offense include:

  • That the officer or anyone responsible for the receipt, disbursement, safekeeping or transfer of public funds knowingly kept documents for false accounts, or materially made invalid entries, or falsely erased materials in any account that holds, or is related to public funds
  • That the offender falsified, altered, concealed, destroyed or obliterated any account holding, or concerning public money, with fraudulent intent

It means that a person can still be guilty of misappropriating public funds in California, even if they do not personally commit it. As long as they knowingly tampered with accounts holding public funds, or destroyed those accounts with fraudulent intent, they still can be found guilty.

Refusing to Transfer or Pay Public Money

Lastly, a person can be charged under Section 424 of the California PC if they did the following:

  • They willfully refused or omitted to transfer or pay any public money in their control, even after a draft was presented to them, or a warrant was drawn upon the funds by a knowledgeable authority, when they are legally required to do so
  • They willfully refused or omitted to pay funds they have received to another official or person that is legally required to collect it

Just as with other types of appropriation of government funds discussed above, this offense also needs the offender to either know they were legally required to disburse the money in question, or they were criminally negligent. Careless in failing to discover whether or not they were allowed by law to do it would be used to find the offender culpable.

Are There Exceptions?

California exempts those charged with misappropriating small or incidental cash from facing the law's full wrath. This means that a person found guilty of misappropriating a relatively small amount of money will not be convicted under California PC Section 424.

Penalties for Those Convicted of Misappropriating Public Funds in California

As mentioned earlier, public funds' embezzlement is a severe offense in California and is convicted as a felony. The potential punishments for those who get convicted include:

  • Felony or formal probation
  • Two, three or four years of incarceration in state prison
  • A maximum fine of $10,000

In addition to these penalties, this is a conviction that is likely to affect other aspects of the offender’s life. A public official will, for instance, not be permitted to hold a state or government office in the future. It makes this conviction graver for state employees when compared to an ordinary criminal conviction.

Possible Legal Defenses against Charges for California PC Section 424

For public officers, facing a conviction for misappropriation of government money is enough to ruin your career and life. Several other aspects of your life can also get destroyed, including your reputation and relationships. For that reason, you need to fight the charges with all you have, and ensure that you do not get a conviction. It is possible if you are working with an experienced criminal attorney. Also, there are several legal strategies that a smart attorney can use in your defense, to compel the court to either reduce or drop your charges. Some of these strategies include:

You Acted Unknowingly or Without Criminal Negligence

As earlier mentioned, all elements of each offense related to the appropriation of public funds must be fully satisfied for an offender to be found guilty under California Penal Law Section 424. A primary requirement in every offense under this law is that the offender must have acted knowingly or with criminal negligence. The absence of the two means that the criminal elements will not be fully satisfied, so the court will have to drop your charges.

Therefore, your attorney can convince the court that you acted the way you did without knowing that it was unlawful. He/she could also prove that you did not work with criminal negligence, which is a higher and more aggravated form of negligence. In most of these cases, prosecutors are unable to prove beyond reasonable doubts that offenders acted known too well that their actions were illegal. If that is the case, the prosecutor cannot confirm that the offender's conduct is negligent beyond ordinary negligence. There is a chance your charges may be dropped or reduced.

Mistake of Law

There are several instances when people commit crimes unknowingly. If that is the case, then the offender will not be guilty of the said offense. This could be what happened to you. If you honestly but mistakenly believed that whatever you did was not misappropriating public funds, the court may not find you guilty under California Penal Law 424. Note that your charges could be dropped even though it was negligent for you to have believed that your actions were not illegal, as long as this negligence was not so gross to be felonious.

The Amount of Misappropriated Public Funds Was Minimal or Incidental

Charges for misappropriation of government money are usually based on the amount of money involved. If the amount were minimal or just incidental, your charges would be dropped automatically. Misappropriating public funds is a serious felony, and so, it only involves significant amounts of money. However, whether or not a sum of money is minimal or incidental is relative. In some cases, the amount considered incidental or insignificant in one circumstance could be significant.

Working with an experienced attorney will help you if you want to use this legal defense to have your criminal charges dropped. Only a competent lawyer will know how to convince the court that the amount involved is incidental or minimal in your case.

California Section 424 PC and Related Offenses

There are other offenses under California laws that are related to the appropriation of public money. Some of these offenses are charged in place of Section 424 of California PC, while others are charged together with the crime. Some of these offenses are:

California Embezzlement

The law against embezzlement in California is under Section 503 of the state’s Penal Code. It is an offense that is frequently charged along with or instead of California Misappropriation of Government Money. Embezzlement is legally defined as fraudulently misappropriating property that does not belong to you, which has been trusted to you.  However, the two offenses are dissimilar in more ways than one as explained:

  • A person can only be guilty of embezzlement if they fraudulently used or converted another person's property for their benefit, to deprive the actual owner their right over the property
  • The law against embezzlement applies to any property with exception to money or property belonging to the government.

In most cases, California embezzlement is convicted as a misdemeanor if the worth of the property in question is below $950. If the value of the property is more than $950, then the offense is a wobbler, and the prosecutor can charge it as a felony or misdemeanor

However, if the embezzled property or money embezzled belongs to the government, the offense is always convicted as a felony, just the same as government funds' misappropriation.

Bribing a Public Official

Section 67 and 68 of the California Penal Law make it illegal for any person to offer a bribe to a public official or receive a bribe from a public official. A public official, in this case, will refer to any government employee or an executive officer. This section of the law is used to charge government officials or employees who receive bribes to perform their duties or extend favor to the public. However, it can also be used to charge non-government employees who bribe or attempt to offer government workers bribe.

Bribing, as used here, means offering money or valuable property to a public employee. It could also mean soliciting or receiving payment or something useful from a person in exchange for favor and corrupt intent.

Anyone found guilty of bribing a government officer can face charges for a felony or misdemeanor, based on the worth of the funds or property in question, and the nature of the offense. However, a government employee convicted of receiving or soliciting a bribe will always face felony penalties.

Both Bribing a Public Official and Appropriation of Public Money are offenses with damaging consequences if the said officer is found guilty. In both cases, there are criminal consequences and other repercussions that can affect various aspects of the officer's life, including his/her career and reputation. 

Find an Orange County Criminal Lawyer Near Me

Misappropriation of government funds is a severe offense in California, with grave consequences on anyone convicted. A conviction carries a lengthy prison term, hefty penalties, and other serious consequences that could affect your life in more ways than one. However, there is hope for anyone facing charges for appropriating public money, but only if you hire an experienced criminal attorney to work on your defense. At Orange County Criminal Lawyer, we know how damaging such a conviction can be, especially on your career and reputation. That is why we employ the best legal strategies to have your charges dropped or reduced. Call us at 714-262-4833 if you are in Orange County, CA, and let us come to your aid when you need it the most.