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What Is the Difference Between Embezzlement and Theft?

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Embezzlement and theft are two crimes that may seem interchangeable, but carry different definitions and penalties under Washington state law. However, these acts can lead to serious consequences — and if convicted, you can face a threat to your freedom, ability to find housing and employment, and interpersonal relationships. Understanding the difference between the two crimes can help you understand what is at stake, and what you need to do to build a compelling defense.

What Is Theft?

Theft is a common crime in Washington state. While specific definitions vary based on the degree of the crime and the surrounding circumstances, the justice system generally defines theft as the act of taking and carrying away someone else’s property without permission from the owner. You must intend to deprive the owner of the property to commit an act of theft.

There are many types of theft crimes you can face arrest for in Washington. The state defines three degrees of this crime, and assigns penalties based on the amount of property stolen and the circumstances surrounding the act. A Tacoma theft lawyer can further explain the consequences of these charges.

  • Third-degree theft is the least severe theft offense that Washington state defines, and is a gross misdemeanor. You commit an act of third-degree theft if the stolen property does not exceed $750 in value.
  • Second-degree theft is a class C felony in Washington. You commit an act of second-degree theft if the stolen property is worth more than $750 and less than $5,000 in value, as long as the property is not a firearm or vehicle. You can also receive this charge if you allegedly steal a code that gives you access to money, goods, or other valuable items, such as a credit card number, gate code, or bank account number.
  • First-degree theft is the most severe theft charge and a class B felony. You can receive a first-degree theft charge if the alleged stolen property is more than $5,000 in value or you take the stolen property directly from the victim, excluding firearms and motor vehicles.

What Is Embezzlement?

Embezzlement, although similar in its definition, involves a different, more specific set of circumstances compared to theft. Embezzlement occurs when you allegedly steal or misappropriate funds from your employer, business partner, or other entity that trusts you with management of the funds.

The main difference between theft and embezzlement is that, with embezzlement, you use your professional position or relationship with the asset holder to commit the crime.

For example, stealing funds from the cash register, adjusting the financial books to hide missing funds, or transferring client payments to a personal account instead of a business one are common acts of embezzlement.

Penalties for Theft and Embezzlement Charges

Embezzlement is a type of theft, but not all forms of theft equate to embezzlement. Washington assigns different penalties for these specific crimes.

Penalties for theft may include the following.

  • Third-degree theft is punishable by up to 1 year in jail and a fine up to $5,000.
  • Second-degree theft is punishable by up to 5 years in prison and a fine up to $10,000.
  • First-degree theft is punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a fine up to $20,000.

Penalties for embezzlement are very similar to theft penalties, and may include the following.

  • If the stolen funds are less than $750, you can face up to 1 year in jail and a fine up to $5,000.
  • If the stolen funds are between $750 and $5,000 in value, you can face up to 5 years in prison and up to $10,000 in fines.
  • If the stolen funds exceed $5,000, you can face up to 10 years in prison and a fine up to $20,000.

Are you facing embezzlement or theft charges in Washington state? You need a criminal defense lawyer who can advocate for your side of the story in the courtroom. Hiring an attorney can provide a number of benefits for your criminal case, including access to evidence you may not be able to obtain, resources and experts who can help build your defense, and knowledge of Washington criminal law and the justice system. If you have not done so already, contact an attorney as soon as possible to discuss your next steps.

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