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The shifting definition of white collar crime

Though it could be argued that white collar crime has always existed in one form or another, the phrase itself was not used until 1939. In that year, Edwin Sutherland said it while presenting a speech to the American Sociological Society.

At the time, Sutherland said that white collar crime was a crime carried out by respectable individuals with a high social status. The crime was connected to that person's job or occupation.

To some degree, the term is still used this way, as it is thought of as occupational crime in many senses. Typically, it happens in a commercial situation, the end goal is simply financial gain, and there is no element of violence to the crime.

For example, a banker who transfers money out of people's accounts and into his or her own account would be committing a white collar crime. He or she may be able to do this at work, as the type of employment provides access to these accounts.

On a more basic level, the crime described above is simply theft. However, there is a bit of a difference between that type of theft and breaking into someone's home to steal money out of a safe. In both cases, the goal is to take the person's money, but the crime is carried out very differently.

That being said, there is no longer such an emphasis on social status. Any worker can commit white collar crime, regardless of social position. Employment may not matter, as things like bribery and computer fraud are usually looked at as white collar crimes, though they could be carried out outside of a workplace.

Those accused of white collar crime need to know both what it means today and what legal options they have in Maryland.

Source: Cornell Law School, "White-collar crime," accessed March 25, 2016

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