Brett the schoolyard bully pulls Mark aside and threatens to beat him up if he doesn't let him copy his homework. Mark knows it's a violation of school policy to help another student cheat, but he also doesn't want another bloody nose; so, he relents and gives Brett his homework. This is a classic example of coercion, wherein one party uses intimidation or threats to force someone to act against their will.
Although a wide range of acts may broadly be considered coercion, laws and legal definitions provide more clarity as to what constitutes a civil wrong or a crime (or a defense to criminal charges in some instances). Below we'll discuss the meaning of coercion in the law, including state and federal statutes as well as contract coercion law.
Definition of Coercion
The broad definition of 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 in order to compel that person to act against his or her will." Actual violence, threats of violence, or other acts of pressure may constitute coercion if they're used to subvert an individual's free will or consent.
In legal terms, it's often said that someone who's been 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 tell when the line between subtle intimidation and coercion has been crossed and even harder to prove. A shrewd business negotiation may be considered contract coercion only if it can be proven that it was signed under duress. Similarly, proving criminal coercion (or duress) rests on the surrounding facts of the incident and may be quite subtle. For example, telling someone "Gee, I'd hate for something to happen to your daughter" is technically vague even when it's said with coercive intent.
Federal Coercion Laws
The term coercion can be found in multiple sections of the U.S. Code in relation to political activity, employment, sex trafficking, commerce, housing, and contract law, to name a few. 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. Punishable by a fine and/or 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 an individual 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." Punishable by a fine and/or up to 20 years in prison (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 is considered coercive and thus unenforceable.
- Prohibition of Coercion (FMLA) - Government employees may not "directly or indirectly" coerce other government employees with regard to their family and medical leave rights, such as threatening retaliation for taking leave.
State Coercion Laws
Most states have criminal charges for coercion and also allow for civil action by district attorneys or Attorneys General (for injunctive relief, for example). The statutory definition of coercion is fairly uniform among the states: the use of intimidation or threats to force (or prevent) someone to do something they have a legal right to do (or not to do). Charges typically are enhanced if physical force was used or threatened. 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 the performance of their official duty or to attempt 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, as long as they didn't put themselves into the 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 reasonable opportunity to escape, and was thus forced to commit the illegal act.
If a party enters into a contract under duress (generally, under threats of harm or retaliation), then that contract may be considered illegal and thus unenforceable. Even in situations where most of the contract is in fact legal, the entire contract may be rescinded (i.e. cancelled) if it can be proven that a single term was entered into 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 occur in many different contexts and may be charged as a criminal offense, trigger civil litigation, or invalidate a contract. If you've been charged with a coercion offense, you'll want to seek immediate legal assistance. Get started today and contact an experienced criminal defense attorney near you.