Extortion or what is sometimes referred to as blackmail is a criminal offense in California. Under penal code 518, this crime involves the use of force or threats which are intended to compel another person into giving up property or money to them, or the use of threats or force to make a public official perform an act or neglect to perform a public duty. There are lengthy prison sentences attached to a conviction for extortion.
California Extortion Charges
It can be somewhat complicated in California to define extortion as there are a wide variety of scenarios this act can fall under. Some behaviors that would be considered extortion under penal code 518 include:
- A person breaks into a home with a knife and threatens the occupants that they will kill them if they do not open a safe containing jewelry and large sums of money.
- A developer of real estate threatens a member of the city council that they will expose an extramarital affair they are having to the media if they do not approve a project the developer wants to be approved so they can build
- An adult female who has a drug problem threatens her parent that she will accuse him of molesting her if he doesn’t provide her with money to purchase more drugs
Sports stars, celebrities, and politicians are often targets for extortion. With their public image at risk, others can use their status as a means of extortion by threatening to release private information that would tarnish their image in the public’s eyes. Almost anyone can find themselves a victim, or even find themselves accused of the crime of blackmail or extortion.
Legal Definition of Extortion in California
California extortion charges consist of four elements. When someone is charged with this crime, the prosecutor has to prove these four elements are present in order to convict.
1 Extortion by force or threat (Penal Code 518)
A defendant threatens an alleged victim with-
- Unlawful injury or the use of force against the alleged victim, a third party or their property
- Accuses the alleged victim of a crime or their family member or another relative
- Threatens to release a secret involving the alleged victim, or to connect them to some kind of crime, scandal, or disgrace
- When the threat is issued, the defendant uses force to make the alleged victim consent to the demands of property, money, or commit an official act.
- The alleged victim then gives the defendant property, money, or performs the official act.
What it Means to Threaten During Extortion Under California Law
In California, it is considered a crime of extortion when someone threatens another with physical harm. Threatening means a crime has been committed without even having injured another or used force against another. The issue considered by the courts is that a ‘threat’ was used. For the threat to apply to extortion charges is must:
- Contain a demand for a specific amount of money
- Use ‘threatening words’ or other distinct threatening languages
Under Penal Code 518, blackmail or extortion is charged even if the act being threatened is legal, or it is believed a right to property or money trying to be gained through the extortion act is owed to the defendant.
Example of a ‘threat’ considered to be extortion would include:
- A man discovers his neighbor is growing marijuana on their property. The man threatens his neighbor to give him some of the pot, or he will call the police and report them for growing an illegal substance. This threat to call the police and report the marijuana is not illegal; however, using a threat to try and gain some of her marijuana or to persuade her to commit to something can be considered extortion.
What Injury Means During Extortion under California Law
The term ‘injury’ is used when charging one for extortion. Under California law, the term ‘injury’ refers to ‘unlawful injury.’ It is not considered extortion or blackmail when a threat is made for an action a person has the legal right to perform. The crime of extortion is charged when one threatens to do something to another person or their property that they would have no legal right to carry out.
Examples of when an injury is considered to be extortion would include:
- A man threatens to beat his neighbor severely if he does not pay him some money he owes. The man does not have the legal right to beat his neighbor and has threatened to injure him. This threat would constitute extortion under California law.
- A woman wants to build an addition onto her home. Under the homeowner’s association where she lives, she needs all the neighbors to consent before she is permitted to build. One man on the block has told the woman he will give his consent if she pays him $100. Arguably, the man has injured the woman’s property if she doesn't pay him the money. This threat is considered ‘unlawful injury’ and is extortion under the law.
What Exposing a Secret Means During Extortion Under California Law
California extortion laws define a secret as a fact. A secret is considered a fact that is:
- Unknown information which the general public or someone who would benefit or be able to harm the alleged victim, does not know
- Exposing the secret of the alleged victim would damage their reputation or other interest, so they would feel required to pay money, give property, or perform an official action
Example when exposing a secret is extortion would include:
- A mayor of a small city claims he graduated from a prestigious university. A woman who lives in the city knows that even though the mayor attended the claimed university, he never finished or graduated. The woman tells the mayor she will tell the media about this fact if he doesn’t give her nephew a job with the city. Since the general public does not know the mayor's secret, and it coming out would harm his reputation a lot, the woman’s actions are considered extortion.
What is Considered an Official Act During Extortion Under California Law
The term 'official act’ is used in acts of extortion. An ‘official act’ is defined as something a public officer or government official does during their official capacity using the authority granted to their position.
Example of when an official act is used as extortion:
- A congressman is about to participate in a vote for a major environmental law. A woman who is part of a radical ecological group that actively wants this law to be passed, calls the congressman and states she will tell his wife about an affair he’s involved in if he doesn’t vote for the bill. The congressman’s job is to vote on laws in his official capacity, so voting for the law would be performing an official act, which makes the woman’s threat an act of extortion.
What is Considered Consent During Extortion Under California Law
Under California extortion law, the word ‘consent’ has a special meaning. Usually, this word implies free will, given freely or willingly, but under the extortion statute, it is defined as something that has been coerced or given unwillingly due to a threat, wrongful force, or fear. The alleged victim had consented to give up property, money, or performed an official act because they were forced to or did so out of fear.
The Extortion Act Must Have Been Carried Out
Another critical element in the California extortion laws is the alleged victim must have performed the act they consented to do because of the extortion threat. The alleged victim must have given up money, property, or completed the official action; otherwise, the crime of extortion has not happened.
Penal Code 523- Extortion In Writing
When extortion is done through a written threat, it will fall under California Penal Code 523- Extortion by Threatening Letter. If the extortion requires the plaintiff to sign a document or check, it will fall under Penal Code 522.
- Penal Code 523
Any person who intends to extort property to other consideration from another party, or if they send any person a letter or other form of written communication, implying or expressing a threat such as defined in Section 519 is punishable in the same manner as if a threat obtained the property or other considerations.
Any person who extorts property or other consideration from another person through ransomware into a computer, computer system, or a computer network is punishable in the same manner according to Section 520 as if the ransomware obtained the property or other consideration.
Penal Code 522- Extortion of Signature
- Any person who through extortion obtains a signature from another to any paper or another instrument where it allows for the transfer of debt, demand, charge, right of action created can be punished under the law in the same manner as if the delivery of such demand, charge, right of action, or debt were obtained.
Penalties for Extortion in California
Extortion is a felony under California law. When convicted of felony charges, a person faces a minimum sentence of one year in prison. A federal felony crime is divided into four separate classes. Each class increases the maximum sentence, which will be determined according to the severity of the crime. A Class E felony is the least serious charge and carries a penalty of up to three years in prison.
- A Felony on a Criminal Record
Felony charges stay on a criminal record for life. There is a strict process one can go through to have these charges removed called an expungement process. California Penal Code 1203.4 will allow a petition to be filed with the courts to have a felony conviction expunged.
Once a felony has been expunged, a person is able to answer legally on applications that they do not have a felony conviction on their record. These charges can hinder obtaining employment or securing a home or apartment.
Felonies are some of the worst crimes committed and often involve violence. These charges include arson, murder, fraud, armed robbery, extortion, etc. When convicted of a felony, it will be a lengthy legal process that includes arraignments, pre-trial conferences, motion hearings, and then the trial. Felonies are serious charges for serious crimes.
Because of the seriousness of extortion it will be charged as a felony, which will include a trial, and the conviction will remain on the defendant’s file for life-impacting chances of receiving loans from a bank, renting or buying a new home, law enforcement will have access to the file information, and potential employers will be able to see the file when applying for new employment.
Penal Code 518 is considered a straight felony and is punishable up to four years in prison along with a fine up to $10,000. There may also be additional sentencing enhancements that apply if the extortion was performed on a senior citizen, the alleged victim suffers from a physical or mental disability, or it was done in connection with criminal street gang activity.
Proving a Charge of Extortion
The prosecution has to be able to establish that a series of factors occurred in order to charge one with extortion:
- The defendant unlawfully threatened to injure the alleged victim
- The defendant issued a threat that they would accuse another person of a crime
- The defendant threatened to expose a secret of another that could cause them some form of personal injury
- When the threat of force is used, the defendant intended to use the fear created to obtain the plaintiff’s consent, property, money or have them commit an official act in their favor
- The threat or use of force resulted in the plaintiff consenting to the defendant’s demands
- The threat or use of force resulted in the plaintiff complying with the defendant’s demands
In terms of extortion, a person’s consent can be coerced or unwilling as long as it is given due to the wrongful or unlawful use of fear or force. The threat has to be the controlling factor that forced the other person to perform an action. If the threat is something a person has the legal right to do, it is then not an unlawful injury.
Defense Against Extortion Charges
There are three primary defenses against extortion charges.
- The actions were not unlawful, which made the alleged victim part with their property, money, or commit an official act. It is not extortion if the action was legal, or the defendant had a legal right to perform the action. Threatening to take someone to court for money owed would be an example of a threatening action not being extortion. If a person owed money or other valuable and refused to repay, the defendant has the legal right to take court action to receive restitution.
- Extortion accusations can be false. If the accuser is wrong about the identity of an alleged perpetrator, the extortion charges have to be dismissed. It is also common for extortion charges to be a product of fabricated evidence. These cases include a lot of ‘he said she said’ being used as evidence, letters or emails that were taken out of context, or text ‘spoofing.’
Accusers are often motivated by jealousy, anger, or revenge and initiate false criminal charges to ‘get back’ at someone they feel has wronged them. An experienced extortion attorney will know how to uncover false allegations and how to convince the judge and prosecution the defendant is innocent.
- The prosecution has to prove extortion, and there are cases where there is not enough evidence to support a charge of blackmail or extortion. Under the Penal Code 518, it states the property has to have value or valuable consideration. Prosecutors are often quick to charge one with extortion without gathering sufficient evidence to support the charge. It may be possible to show there was no threat to another person, or that the communication was a misunderstanding. An experienced extortion attorney can help uncover these defense strategies.
- Extortion does not require the taking of property or money from the alleged victim or taking it against their will. It does require there be a specific intent to induce the alleged victim to consent with the parting of the property, money, or committing the official act.
With the extortion charge, the main reason the alleged victim parted with their money, property, or performed an official act is that they were in fear if they did not. If the alleged victim gave in to the demands for any other reason than fear, it is not extortion.
- Fear has to be the controlling cause; it is not sufficient to prove fear and threat as one factor in obtaining property, money, or causing an official act. If the threat created fear only in part, it is the prosecution's job to prove ‘part of the reason’ is so material it is the moving cause producing the consent of the alleged victim to part with their property, money, or commit the official act.
Find an Extortion Attorney Near Me
If you are facing extortion charges, you need an experienced attorney on your side to fight these allegations. Call our Los Angeles criminal lawyer at 424-333-0943 to find the defense you need to protect your rights and your future. Extortion is a serious charge and will impact your future for the rest of your life. You need legal representation with court experience who understands California laws to ensure you have the best defense possible.