A man walks into a profitable liquor store in the heart of the city, not to buy anything but to offer "protection" to the shopkeeper for a weekly fee. She declines, but he insists. The man lists the names of her four children and mentions that he would hate to see anything bad happen to them. The shopkeeper relents and agrees to pay him a weekly fee. This is an example of extortion.
The crime of extortion is obtaining money, property, or something else of value by use of a threat, usually of an injury or use of force towards the victim, the victim's property or reputation, or the victim's loved ones.
This article provides an overview of the elements of the offense and the types of extortion that may be included in a criminal case brought by law enforcement that could possibly lead to a felony conviction.
Extortion: Definition and Overview
Most state laws define the elements of extortion as the gaining of property or money by almost any kind of force or threat of violence, property damage, harm to reputation, or unfavorable government action. Extortion is often charged as a felony criminal offense in most states. Usually, states will set the severity of the charge based on the dollar amount extorted from the victim. Lower values can lead to less serious charges, such as misdemeanor charges in some instances.
Blackmail is a form of extortion in which the threat is to expose embarrassing and damaging information to family, friends, or the public. Inherent in this common form of extortion is the threat to expose the details of someone's private life to the public unless some form of payment occurs. Blackmail can occur to someone who is a public official or a private citizen. These are typically white-collar crimes.
Another example of an extortion case is if a witness in a civil case contacts the attorney for one of the litigants and demands to be paid for their testimony in court. They claim that their memory is unreliable, but they can remember anything for $1,000. Their offer to provide false testimony endangers the property interest that the litigant has in the outcome of the lawsuit.
The charge of extortion can take place over the telephone, via mail, text, email, or other computer or wireless communications. If any method of interstate commerce is used in the extortion, it can be a federal crime charged pursuant to federal law.
Nearly all extortion statutes criminalize a threat against the person or property of the victim. Threats to harm the victim's friends or relatives may also be included. It is not necessary for a threat to involve physical injury. It may be sufficient to threaten to accuse another person of a crime or to expose a secret that would result in public embarrassment or ridicule. The threat does not have to relate to an unlawful act.
For example, Wisconsin Statues provide in § 943.30: "Whoever, either verbally or by any written or printed communication, maliciously threatens to accuse or accuses another of any crime or offense, or threatens or commits any injury to the person, property, business, profession, calling or trade, or the profits and income of any business, profession, calling or trade of another, with intent thereby to extort money or any pecuniary advantage whatever, or with intent to compel the person so threatened to do any act against the person's will or omit to do any lawful act, is guilty of a Class H felony."
Another example is found in California Penal Code § 518 which defines extortion as “the obtaining of property or other consideration from another, with their consent, or the obtaining of an official act of a public officer, induced by a wrongful use of force or fear, or under color of official right."
Other types of threats sufficient to constitute extortion include those to harm the victim's business and those to either testify against the victim or withhold testimony necessary to their defense or claim in an administrative proceeding or a lawsuit. Many statutes also provide that any threat to harm another person in their career or reputation is extortion.
Cyber Extortion: A Growing Threat
While some may believe that extortion only happens in smoky backrooms or among shady mobster characters, it can also happen in the modern digital world. Cyber extortion is a new way for criminals to find victims and ensnare them via their keyboards or smartphones.
Some cybercriminals use a tool known as "ransomware" to encrypt a victim's important files and documents, making them unreadable until a ransom is paid. No specific business or individual needs to be targeted by these traps, but cybercriminals tend to focus their efforts on larger-scale targets such as corporations with large amounts of data and deeper pockets.
Questions About Extortion? Reach Out to an Attorney
If your heated discussions with a business associate, a client, a friend, or a family member cross the line and your words are taken as a threat to gain money or any other sort of advantage, then the police could arrest you and charge you with attempted extortion.
If you are facing a criminal investigation, felony offense, or prison term, your best move is to contact a local criminal defense attorney to better understand the extortion laws in your jurisdiction and come up with a defense strategy to combat what type of penalties you may be facing, such as a prison sentence and a criminal record. A criminal law expert can put their experience to work for your defense.