embezzlement, wrongful use, for one's own selfish ends, of the property of another when that property has been legally entrusted to one. Such an act was not larceny at common law because larceny was committed only when property was acquired by a "felonious taking," i.e., when the act was committed with respect to property that was at the time in the legal possession of the owner. Consequently, unfaithful servants, employees, agents, trustees, or guardians who misappropriated another's property could be sued only in the civil courts, on the grounds that although the defendant had legally come into possession of the property, he had breached his trust by wrongfully misappropriating it to his own use. To remedy this situation statutes were passed in England and the United States that either made embezzlement a distinct crime or enlarged the definition of larceny in such a way as to include all cases of misappropriation of property in the lawful possession of the wrongdoer. In most states of the United States embezzlement is a felony. Under acts of Congress, stealing of letters by postmasters, clerks, and letter carriers is considered embezzlement.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.