There are two main federal laws that prevent people from stealing government property. The first one states that anyone who embezzles or knowingly steals government property will be subject to a prison sentence of up to ten years. It also says that there are similar punishments for retaining, concealing, and receiving the property, as long as the person had the knowledge and intent that they were stealing.
If the value of the government property was less than $1,000, the prison sentence becomes one year at the maximum instead of ten years.
The second law stipulates that government employees and private business agents can be subject to prosecution if they steal or embezzle funds from federal programs. This law is meant to make sure that federal programs retain their integrity even when they are organized through private businesses.
Embezzlement was defined by the Supreme Court in 1895. It determined that embezzlement occurs when a person fraudulently steals property that they were supposed to protect. There are now six specific elements that a prosecution needs to prove if they want to convict the defendant of embezzlement:
- That the defendant had a legal financial relationship with the government, which was how they obtained the funds
- That the stolen property is considered government property
- That the property currently belongs to the US or previously did
- That the defendant came into possession of the property through their employment status
- That the defendant fraudulently used the property for their own self interest
- That the defendant intended to deprive the government from being able to use the property
It’s also important to note that a person does not need to have the intention of permanently stealing the property. In fact, even if a person intended to give the property back, they are still guilty of committing the crime. Paying restitution does not count as a defense against an embezzlement charge.
The official language of the statute says that it is illegal to purloin or steal the government’s property. But these words are not given official common law definitions. They refer to larceny and related crimes that aren’t covered under the official common law picture of larceny.
Federal common law states that larceny must meet these qualifications: the individually wrongfully took property that belonged to someone else without achieving that individual or entity’s consent. They must also have intended to deprive the property owner permanently of the property.
When Is It Stealing?
The terms outlined in the law are complicated and broad. But the basic gist is that if you manage to obtain any property of the government through any unlawful act, you have broken at least one of the statutes. Most commonly, the cases that are prosecuted involve:
- Healthcare fraud related to Tricare, Medicaid, and Medicare
- Government contractor fraud, such as military contract and construction contract fraud
- Submission of misleading or false information to receive federal benefits from a program you do not qualify for
It’s common for federal prosecutors to level other charges in addition to charges for breaking these statutes. The other charges tend to be more specifically related to the exact manner of lawbreaking that was incurred. Healthcare fraud and government contract fraud are both often prosecuted through the False Claims Act. Embezzlement and theft typically fall into circumstances that allow for wire fraud and mail fraud charges as well.
The best defense for this crime will vary depending on the circumstances. That’s part of why it’s so important to talk to an experienced defense lawyer.