Extortion: Laws, Penalties, and Sentencing

Attempting to obtain money or other valuables by means of a threat is extortion.

By , Attorney · UC Berkeley School of Law
Updated by Kat McClain, Attorney · University of Houston Law Center
Updated June 09, 2022

Extortion occurs when someone attempts to obtain money, property, or other valuables by threatening to commit violence, accusing the victim of a crime, or revealing private or damaging information about the victim. Both state laws and federal law make extortion a crime.

What Is Extortion?

Traditionally the crime of extortion only covered actions done by public or government officials. Today, however, this unlawful act applies to the conduct of private citizens as well. (In some states, extortion involves public officials' actions, while blackmail applies to those of private citizens, even though the conduct is similar.) Let's break down the elements of extortion.

Defining Extortion

A person commits extortion by:

  • attempting to gain money, property, or something of value
  • by threatening another with personal or reputational harm
  • with a corrupt or unlawful intent.

Attempting to Gain Property, Money, or Something of Value

The type of property an offender tries to obtain when using extortion encompasses almost anything that has value. However, the property doesn't need to be actual physical property or have a dollar value. It's also not necessary for the accused to actually deprive the victim of property, as attempting to extort property constitutes a crime as well.

Courts have held that the property involved in extortion can include such property as cash, tangible goods, liquor licenses, debts, and even agreements not to compete in business. Typically, sexual acts are covered, though some states have specific laws that govern sexual extortion, such as Arizona.

Communicating a Threat

Extortion requires the actor to make some type of threat that states an intention to commit an injury or harmful action against the victim. The threat itself must be able to cause fear in the victim. The fear can be based on almost anything, such as the fear of violence, economic loss, social stigma, deportation, or anything else that might cause the victim to act or hand over the property. For example, under California's law, a person can commit extortion by threatening to injure the victim or another person, accuse the victim of a crime or of some other disgraceful conduct, expose a secret, or report a person to immigration.

An offender can make the threat verbally, in writing, or even through non-verbal gestures or other communications. In some states, merely making a threat is enough to qualify as a crime, whether or not the victim felt fearful.

Unlawful Conduct Done With a Corrupt Intent

A person commits extortion when making a threat with the specific intention of forcing another person to provide money, property, or something of value. A person who merely made a mistake of fact or a miscalculation does not have corrupt intent.

Intent is not based on the defendant's statements alone. The circumstances and facts surrounding the threat also help to show the actor's intent. In other words, a prosecutor can prove the accused intended to deprive the victim of property without having to actually show what was going on in the defendant's head.

Types of Extortion

Every state government, as well as the federal government, has laws making extortion a crime. Some break it down even further and list different types of extortion.

Blackmail as a Type of Extortion

Quite often, extortion and blackmail are used interchangeably. Blackmail occurs when an offender extorts money from a victim by threats of accusation or exposure. When we think of blackmail, we usually think of hush money or a bribe to keep someone silent. Extortion itself usually encompasses a broader range of conduct than blackmail.

Threats as a Type of Extortion

As previously discussed, extortion requires the offender to make some kind of threat toward the victim. Unlike blackmail, where the defendant extorts money through a threat, some threats simply involve an offender doing something harmful to the victim. For example, the unlawful actor might threaten to injure the victim or another person, accuse the victim of a crime or of some other disgraceful conduct, expose a secret, or report a person to immigration.

Cyber Extortion

Cyber extortion has been around since computers were first introduced; however, it's now more prevalent than ever, as computers have become more integrated into our everyday lives. An example of cyber extortion involves someone threatening to release all the confidential data of a business unless the business complies with their monetary demands. Individuals can fall prey to cyber extortion as well.

Federal Law on Extortion

The Hobbs Act is the federal statute relating to extortion. It prohibits extortion or robbery by a public official. This unlawful act occurs when a public official uses their office as a means of unlawfully obtaining money from another person. We often think of this as someone taking a bribe.

What Are the Penalties for Extortion?

Prosecutors can charge extortion as a felony or misdemeanor, depending on the circumstances surrounding the offense and the history of the defendant.

State Penalties for Extortion

Penalties for extortion vary by state. The severity of the penalty is determined by whether the prosecutor charges the defendant with a felony or a misdemeanor. In West Virginia, for example, extortion constitutes a felony, punishable by one to five years in prison. However, if the offender failed to obtain anything of value, they receive a misdemeanor charge, which carries two to 12 months in jail and a fine of $50 to $500.

In Arizona, a defendant who commits extortion by threatening to cause physical injury or death faces a Class 2 felony conviction, which subjects them to up to 12.5 years in prison for first-time offenders. Other types of threats can result in a Class 4 felony conviction, resulting in up to 15 years in prison, depending on the defendant's prior convictions.

Federal Penalties for Extortion

Violating the Hobbs Act can result in up to 20 years in federal prison and a substantial fine. Other acts of extortion under federal law result in lesser penalties, including up to three years in prison.

Possible Defenses to an Extortion Charge

Defendants facing extortion charges under state or federal law have several potential defenses available to them.

Actual innocence. Defendants charged with extortion or a similar crime have the usual defenses available to all criminal defendants, such as "Someone else committed this crime," or "The alleged conduct did not occur."

Lack of intent. Extortion requires that the defendant had the specific intention of forcing another person to provide money, property, or something of value by threatening them. Without that corrupt intent, the crime does not exist.

Absence of threat. To constitute extortion, the actor must make a threat to commit an injury or harmful action against the victim. If the defendant is able to prove no actual threat existed, this element of the offense isn't satisfied.

Victim was not fearful. This defense only works in jurisdictions that require the victim actually felt fear based on the defendant's threats. It might not be as useful in states where the prosecutor need only prove the threats would cause a reasonable person to feel fear.

Talk to a Lawyer

If you are facing a charge for extortion or a related crime, contact an experienced criminal defense attorney in your area as soon as possible. A lawyer can evaluate the strength of the prosecution's case against you and help develop any defenses that might apply to the unique circumstances of your case. A knowledgeable attorney can also advise you on how the law will apply to your set of facts.

(Ariz. Rev. Stat. § 13-1804; Cal. Penal Code § 519; W.Va. Code § 61-2-13; 18 U.S.C. §§ 872, 1951 (2022).)

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