Extortion is a criminal offense that occurs when a person unlawfully obtains money, property, or services from another person, or institution, through threats. Extortion is usually practiced by organized crime groups. In such conditions, the victim has no feasible legal remedy.
In common law, extortion is committed by a public officer. When a public officer takes money or other valuables from an individual that is not due to the officer, such act will not amount to robbery. However, this will come under extortion. The valuables or money should be extracted by using force or threat. To constitute the offense of extortion, the public officer should use a threat under the guise of exercising public duties. When an officer falsely claims authority to take that which the officer is not lawfully entitled to , such act is known as acting under color of office[i]. When a public officer makes a person do a service or demands payment in a private capacity, it will not amount to extortion because it is not performed under the color of office[ii].
The unlawful exaction of money through intimidation was a complement of bribery in the early ages. This was because both the crimes were considered to be done by public officers only.
In the U.S., the crime of extortion is statutorily defined. In some states, extortion is not limited to acts done by public officers, but includes actions of private individuals[iii]. However, in some states, when a private person commits extortion it will come under the crime of blackmail. Blackmail is mostly used as a term that defines extortion. The crime of extortion includes an act involving moral turpitude or gross immorality[iv]. Under some statutes, a corporation can also be considered liable for extortion.
Extortion can include threats of physical harm, criminal prosecution, or public exposure if the amount or valuable demanded by a person is not provided. In the U.S., extortion can be committed as a federal crime across a computer system, phone, by mail, or in using any instrument of interstate commerce. Extortion is a federal offense when it interferes with interstate commerce. It is punishable by a fine, imprisonment, or both.
All extortion statutes require that a threat must be made to the person or property of the victim. Any threat to harm a person in his/her career or reputation is also extortion. There should be an intention to take money from another person. In most statutes, the intention is expressed in terms such as ‘willfully’ or ‘purposefully’[v]. When a person mistakenly believes that some other person owes him/her money and asks for payment, such acts will not amount to the offense of extortion. However, when an officer extracts money forcefully, this will amount to extortion. There is no need to prove that the public officer had intention to extract money from the person. But if an officer takes a fee not authorized by law, under the belief that s/he is by law entitled to it, and without any corrupt intent in the matter, s/he is not guilty of extortion[vi].
Extortion is closely related to robbery and false pretenses. This is because all these crimes come under the common crime of theft. Robbery differs from extortion. In robbery, property is taken against the will and without the consent of the victim. In extortion, the victim unwillingly consents to the surrender money or property[vii]. Another distinguishing factor is that the nature of the threat for robbery is limited to immediate physical harm to the victim or his or her home. On the other hand, extortion encompasses a greater variety of threats. Extortion can be committed with or without the use of force and with or without the use of a weapon. The main difference between extortion and robbery is that extortion always involves a written or verbal threat whereas robbery can occur without any verbal or written threat. Concerning false pretenses and extortion, the main difference is that in false pretenses the property is obtained by a lie as opposed to a threat.
The punishment for extortion is a fine, imprisonment, or both[viii]. However, when the offense is committed by a public officer, the penalty can include forfeiture of office. In some states, an extortion victim can bring a civil action and recover pecuniary damages from the accused.
[i] Conway v. State, 8 N.J. Misc. 406 (Sup. Ct. 1930).
[ii] Commonwealth v. Costello, 1958 Pa. Dist. & Cnty. Dec. LEXIS 180 (Pa. C.P. 1958).
[iii] Evans v. United States, 504 U.S. 255 (U.S. 1992).
[iv] State ex rel. Mays v. Mason, 29 Ore. 18 (Or. 1896).
[v] Smith v. State, 71 Fla. 639 (Fla. 1916).
[vi] Leeman v. State, 35 Ark. 438 (Ark. 1880).
[vii] United States v. Xiao Qin Zhou, 428 F.3d 361, 371 (2d Cir. N.Y. 2005).
[viii] State v. Fitz, 202 So. 2d 841 (Fla. 1967).