Federal Criminal Offense of Theft of Government Property – 18 U.S.C. § 641
The United States government, through its many departments and cabinet agencies, employs numerous individuals and owns substantial amounts of valuable property. When individuals embezzle or steal any of this valuable property, they may be subject to prosecution for the serious federal crime of theft of government property in violation of Title 18, Section 641 of the United States Code.
Stealing from the United States government can lead to harsh penalties. If convicted, the value of the property that was stolen generally determines punishment.
Theft of government property under 18 U.S.C. § 641 makes it a crime to steal, embezzle, or knowing convert with intent for your own personal gain the property, or to sell, convey, or dispose of any record, voucher, money, or something of value issued by a department of the United States government.
It should be noted that it's also a crime to receive, conceal or keep anything of value if you know it was stolen or embezzled.
Anyone under investigation, or already facing a federal grand jury indictment for 18 U.S.C. § 641 theft of government property needs to consult with an experienced attorney immediately. Early intervention into your case by a qualified attorney can prove to be the most effective defense strategy.
To give readers a better understanding about the federal crime of theft of government property, our federal criminal defense lawyers are providing an overview below.
Definition of 18 U.S.C. § 641 Theft of Government Property
Title 18, Section 641 of the United States Code defines theft of government property:
“Anyone who embezzles, steals, purloins, or knowingly converts to their use or the use of another, or without authority, sells, conveys or disposes of any record, voucher, money, or something of value of the United States or of any department or agency, or any property made under contract for the Government will be fined or imprisoned.”
Embezzlement is the fraudulent appropriation of property by someone to whom the property was entrusted. The individuals who have the most access to government property are often federal employees.
One common scenario in 18 U.S.C. § 641 prosecutions is the embezzlement of government property by one of the government's own employees who enjoy a position of trust and access. Embezzlement is distinct from larceny or other forms of theft in that the physical taking of the property is often lawful.
In the employment context, this may mean that the federal employee was initially permitted to take into his or her possession the government property in question. 18 U.S.C. § 1361 defines the crime of destruction of government property.
Elements of an 18 U.S.C. § 641 Embezzlement Crime
To complete the crime of embezzlement under 18 U.S.C. § 641, the employee must misappropriate the property, meaning the employee converted or appropriated the property for their own use with the intent of depriving the United States of the use of the property.
This can be as simple as using a government-issued vehicle or other device for personal use and as complex as using government computer systems or other technology for private business purposes.
It should be noted that intending to return or pay back the government for the property is no defense under 18 U.S.C. § 641 when charged as an embezzlement offense.
As soon as the misappropriation of government property occurs, the offense is complete even if the government ultimately suffers no financial harm.
The Crime of Larceny Under 18 U.S.C. § 641
A larceny, which is what most readers will think of as the traditional definition of theft, also qualifies for a prosecution under 18 U.S.C. § 641. This version of an 18 U.S.C. § 641 prosecution can be brought against government employees, as with embezzlement, or simply against any other individual.
Larceny against United States government property occurs when the defendant takes away the government's property without permission with the intent of depriving the government of the property.
Unlike the embezzlement version of an 18 U.S.C. § 641 allegation, larceny does in fact require the defendant to intend to permanently deprive the government of the property in question. There may be a defense, therefore, if the defendant can establish their intent to return the property.
18 U.S.C. § 641 is intentionally written in broad fashion to encompass almost all wrongful acts which deprive the government of some or all of the value of its property.
As we have seen, both the common law concepts of embezzlement and larceny are contained within 18 U.S.C. § 641.
Additionally, “knowing conversion,” of United States government property can give rise to a prosecution under this section. This provision covers virtually all intentionally wrongful uses of government property which are not covered under the other provisions.
Penalties for 18 U.S.C. § 641 Theft of Government Property
A violation of Section 641 subjects the defendant to a potential maximum of 10 years in federal prison and a fine, though if the property is valued at less than $1,000, the maximum term of imprisonment decreases to one year plus a fine.
In reality, sentencing under 18 U.S.C. § 641 is subject both to the application of the United States Sentencing Guidelines, which are advisory, and the factors outlined in Section 3553(a) or Title 18 of the U.S. Code.
A federal district court judge will apply both of these sources of authority and ultimately exercise their discretion in fashioning a sentence with is adequate, but not greater than necessary, to accomplish the goals of sentencing including punishment, deterrence, rehabilitation, and respect for the law.
Fighting Allegations of Stealing Government Property
Defenses to an allegation under 18 U.S.C. § 641, as we have seen, will depend on the particular type of allegation brought. In the employment context, the defendant might argue that they were not in fact appropriating the government's property but was acting within the scope of employment.
In the larceny context, the individual could offer the defense that they intended to return the government property. The defense most likely to succeed will differ from case to case.
Another potential defense to theft of government property allegations include an argument there is a lack of evidence of intent. The statute requires the prosecutor to present evidence of the defendant's “specific intent” to commit the crime.
If there is insufficient evidence of “intent,” or if the evidence shows the conduct might have been accidental and in good faith, then prosecution under 18 U.S.C. § 641 is not justified.
Our defense lawyers might also be able to make an argument there is simply a lack of necessary evidence for a conviction. Federal prosecutors have to prove every element of the alleged crime. We might be able to raise reasonable doubt on one or more crucial factors needed for a guilty verdict.
Finally, we might be able to show there were constitutional violations such as unlawful searches and seizures that were in violation of defendant's Fourth Amendment Rights.
Criminal charges in federal court under 18 U.S.C. § 641 are serious federal crimes which should be defended vigorously by competent criminal defense counsel. Our team of experienced federal criminal defense attorneys can protect your rights and help you achieve the best possible outcome in your case based on your particular case facts and circumstances.
Eisner Gorin LLP is a nationally recognized criminal defense law firm representing clients throughout the United States against all type of federal offenses.