Brett, the schoolyard bully, pulls Mark aside and threatens to beat him up if Mark doesn't let Brett copy Mark's homework. Mark knows it's against school policy to help another student cheat. But Mark also doesn't want another bloody nose. So, Mark relents and gives Brett his homework. This is a classic example of coercion. Coercion happens when one party intimidates or uses threats to force someone to act against their will.
A wide range of acts may broadly be considered coercion. Many laws and legal definitions give more clarity about what is a civil wrong or a crime. Arguing coercion can serve as a defense to criminal charges in some instances. Below we'll discuss the meaning of coercion in the law. We will address state and federal statutes related to coercion law. We also cover what a crime of coercion is, more generally. Also, we review the effect a crime involving coercion can have on a criminal record.
Definition of Coercion
Coercion is "the use of express or implied threats of violence or reprisal (as discharge from employment) or other intimidating behavior that puts a person in immediate fear of the consequences to compel that person to act against his or her will." Actual violence, threats of violence, or other acts of pressure may constitute coercion. But they are only considered coercion if used to subvert a person's free will or consent.
In legal terms, it's often said that someone coerced was acting under duress. In fact, "duress" and "coercion" are often interchanged. Black's Law Dictionary defines duress as "any unlawful threat or coercion used ... to induce another to act [or to refrain from acting] in a manner [they] otherwise would not [or would]."
It's not always easy to see the line between subtle intimidation and coercion. It's even harder to prove. A shrewd business negotiation may be considered contract coercion. But it is only considered this way if it can be proven that a signee was under duress. Similarly, proving criminal coercion (or duress) rests on the surrounding facts of the incident. Under such circumstances, it may be pretty subtle. For example, telling someone, "Gee, I'd hate for something to happen to your daughter," is technically vague. It is this way, even when it's said with coercive intent.
Federal Coercion Laws
The term coercion is in several sections of the U.S. Code. It is in relation to political activity and employment. It may be found in relation to political activity and employment. It's also in sex trafficking, commerce, and housing. It's even used in contract law. Sometimes these codes use the term "duress" instead. But they're similar in their recognition of acts done under pressure from another party. Federal laws addressing coercion include the following:
- Coercion of Political Activity — To "intimidate, threaten, command, or coerce" any federal employee to engage (or not engage) in any political activity. This is punishable by a fine and up to three years in prison.
- Interference, Coercion, or Intimidation (Fair Housing) — Adverse actions taken against someone for "having exercised or enjoyed" or having aided someone else's enjoyment of rights granted under the Fair Housing Act.
- Coercion and Enticement (Sex Trafficking) — Coercion of a person to travel across state or foreign boundaries "to engage in prostitution, or in any sexual activity for which any person can be charged with a criminal offense." This is punishable by a fine and up to 20 years in prison. This is also punishable by 10 years to life in prison if the victim is a minor.
- Protection from Coercive Contracts (Professional Boxing) — Generally, contracts requiring a boxer to grant certain rights to a promoter as a condition of participation in professional matches are coercive and thus unenforceable.
- Prohibition of Coercion (FMLA) — Government employees may not "directly or indirectly" coerce other government employees about their family and medical leave rights. An example of this is threatening retaliation for taking leave.
State Coercion Laws
Most states have criminal charges for coercion and allow for civil action by district attorneys or attorneys general. An example of this is injunctive relief. The statutory definition of coercion is fairly uniform among the states. Nearly uniform across the states is how most states' laws about coercion define coercion as:
- The use of intimidation or threats to force (or prevent) someone; and,
- To do something they have a legal right to do (or not to do)
Charges typically get enhanced if someone uses physical force or threats. Examples of state laws addressing coercion include the following:
- California — The state's civil code allows a government's attorney (D.A., for example) to seek a civil penalty of $25,000 for acts of coercion against individuals.
- New York — Coercion in the first degree, a class D felony, may be charged when the perpetrator compels the victim to commit a felony, cause physical injury to another person, or violate their duty as a public servant.
- Texas — It's a class A misdemeanor to attempt to influence a public servant in performing their official duty or to influence a voter to vote a certain way; it's a third-degree felony if the coercion is a threat to commit a felony.
Coercion as a Defense to Criminal Charges
A criminal defendant may claim they were coerced into committing a criminal act. They may do so if they didn't put themselves into a dangerous situation through negligence. This defense generally requires the following elements:
- There was an immediate threat of serious bodily harm;
- The defendant had a reasonable fear that the other party would indeed carry out the threat; and
- The defendant had no good opportunity to escape and was forced to commit the illegal act.
If a defendant can prove they were not coerced by providing proof of the above three elements, they usually can succeed in such a defense.
If a party enters into a contract under duress (generally, under threats of harm or retaliation), that contract may be illegal and unenforceable. Even in situations where most of the contract is legal, the entire contract may be rescinded (i.e., canceled) if someone proves that a single term was entered under duress. One possible defense to contract coercion charges is where the other party also was involved in coercive activity, referred to as the "unclean hands" doctrine.
Charged With Violating a Coercion Law? Get Legal Help Today
As you can see, coercion can happen in many different contexts and may be charged as a criminal offense, trigger civil litigation, or invalidate a contract. If you've been accused of a coercion offense, seek immediate legal help. Get started today and contact an experienced criminal defense attorney near you.
Coercion can be a complicated element of any criminal charge. It can be a murky area of criminal law. It can be used in defense of charges you face. Or it might be an element in a crime you've been accused of. Maybe, you've been charged with a crime related to domestic violence that also involves coercion. Perhaps, you're defending against a charge of extortion, against which you could use a coercion defense. Whatever your unique circumstances, you should use criminal defense lawyers to help with your case. At the law offices of criminal defense lawyers, you can get the help you need. Their legal advice is an invaluable resource.