Former city council members of Bell, California, a small city southeast of Los Angeles, stand accused of pillaging the city’s treasury and pocketing the funds, while claiming to be ignorant to the illicitness of the act. The so-called Bell 8 defendants are hoping a recent ruling by the California Supreme Court will force prosecutors to drop the charges against them. Defense attorneys are preparing to judiciously cite the decision in Stark v. Superior Court of Sutter County in their request to drop the charges against the Bell 8.
In Stark, Sutter County Auditor-Controller Robert Stark was accused of making illogical policy changes, filing a late budget, withholding overtime pay and transferring money from a general fund reserve to a waterworks district from 2003 to 2005. In August the California Supreme Court ruled that the mental state, comprehension and acknowledgement of the illegitimacy of the act must be taken into consideration before someone can be convicted of misconduct related to the handling of public funds.
What exactly does that mean? It means that in order for embezzlement charges to stick, the prosecution will have to show either that the defendants knew they were breaking the law or should have known that what they were doing was illegal.
Does the Ruling Apply to Bell 8?
The significant difference between the Bell 8 and Stark cases, however, is that the Bell 8 defendants are accused of embezzling public money and using it to fill their own personal bank accounts with large sums of money and to set up comprehensive retirement packages for themselves. By contrast, the defendant in Stark simply moved around public money among various publicly controlled county government bank accounts.
What Is Considered Embezzlement?
Entrusting others with control over property and funds is necessary for business owners and governmental leaders. The risk associated with this is that funds may be misappropriated or embezzled.
The nature of embezzlement varies from case to case. In some cases depending on the severity of the theft, no one may ever be legally accused, such as when an employee is caught taking office supplies or filing ineligible personal expenses on a request for reimbursement. The misappropriation of public funds, however, is not taken lightly in most California jurisdictions. Typically embezzlement includes three elements:
- The embezzler has established a relationship of trust with the victim or agency
- As a result of the relationship, the embezzler has access or control over certain property
- The embezzler takes the property from the victim or agency
In California, now it appears that it may be necessary to consider the mental state of a governmental employee accused of embezzlement along with these three elements.