You've probably seen it portrayed numerous times in film or television: a mobster makes his way into a local family-run store and tells the elderly owners that they need to pay him “protection” money so he can defend them from the neighborhood thugs, or even from his own actions. This common plot device is based on a real life crime. Attempting to force someone to pay you by making threats is known as extortion, and it is punished in all states, as well as under federal law.
The crime of extortion traditionally covered only actions by public or government officials, though today the crime applies to actions by private citizens as well. (In some states, extortion applies to acts by public officials, while blackmail applies to acts by private citizens, even though the same type of activities are involved.) Extortion occurs when someone attempts to obtain money or property by threatening to commit violence, accuse the victim of a crime, or reveal private or damaging information about the victim.
- Threats. Extortion is based upon some type of threat. The person making the threat must state an intention to commit an injury or harmful action against the victim. 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. (Cal. Pen. Code, § 519.) A person 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.
- Intent. A person commits extortion when making a threat with the specific intention of forcing someone else to provide money, property, or something of value. However, intent is not based on the defendant's statements alone, but rather upon the circumstances and facts surrounding the threat. 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.
- Fear. When someone makes a threat or attempts extortion, 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 property. However, it isn't necessary that the victim actually experiences fear, but only that the accused intended to cause fear. Also, a person who experiences fear doesn't necessarily make the accused guilty of extortion, as the accused must have intended to cause the fear in an attempt to gain property.
- Property. The type of property someone tries to obtain when using extortion encompasses almost anything that has value. However, the property doesn't need to be actual physical property, and can be property that does not have a dollar value. It is also not necessary for the accused to actually deprive the victim of property, as attempting to extort property is also a crime. 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. Sexual acts are also typically covered, though some states have specific laws that govern sexual extortion.
Though states provide a wide range of penalties for extortion, the crime is most often punished as a felony offense. A felony is the most serious category of crime, one that is punishable by at least a year in prison and significant fines. In some states and in some situations, however, the crime may be classified as a misdemeanor, in which case it has lower fines and jail sentences associated with it.
- Fines. Fines for extortion range widely, but can be as much as $10,000 or more for each conviction.
- Restitution. In addition to fines, a person convicted of extortion must often pay restitution to the victim, especially when the victim was deprived of valuable property. Unlike a fine, which is paid to the state, restitution is paid to the victim as compensation for the loss the victim suffered.
- Incarceration. Prison sentences for extortion can be significant. State laws allow for prison sentences of up to 15 years or more for each individual extortion attempt.
- Probation. Courts may also impose probation sentences for an extortion conviction. Courts may be more likely to use a probation sentence when someone has failed at an attempted extortion or the extortion did not otherwise result in any loss of property by the victim. Probation sentences typically last for 12 months or more, may include a fine, and require that the convicted person comply with specific terms imposed by the court, such as keeping a job and not contacting the victim. Failing to comply with probation terms typically results in having to serve a prison sentence.
You can get more information on the charging process in Facing Criminal Charges.
Extortion is a serious crime, and one that can result in a significant loss of freedom if convicted. If you are facing an extortion investigation or charge, you need to speak to a qualified criminal defense attorney. Only a lawyer who understands the laws of your state and who has experience with the local criminal justice system can give you meaningful advice about your case and help you protect your rights.