Blackmail is a crime that involves a threat with an intention to compel a person to do an act against his/her will or to take a person’s money or property. In blackmail, a threat may or may not consist of physical injury to a threatened person or to someone loved by that person. Sometimes a threat may be to injure a person’s reputation. In some cases, the threat would be to expose an illegal act previously committed by the victim if the victim fails to submit to a demand. Punishment for blackmail can include a fine, imprisonment, or both.
Generally, blackmail is synonymous with extortion. Some states distinguish blackmail from extortion by demanding that blackmail must be in writing in order to make it punishable. The terms extortion and blackmail are sometimes said to involve different behaviors. Accordingly, extortion refers to a threat made by a public official, while blackmail refers to a threat to collect money illegally. Both offenses are very similar[i], the only difference being that extortion involves an underlying independent criminal act, while blackmail does not.
A threat involves an act of coercion. It is an expression of an intention to inflict an evil or injury on another person[ii]. A threat will bring out a negative response. It is a crime in many jurisdictions. A threat is also defined as a menace that keeps the mind of a person upon whom a threat operates unsettled.
Generally, a threat is one of the elements of extortion or blackmail. In order to punish an offense of extortion, the prosecution must show that the motive of the threat was to obtain money, property, or some other thing of value. But under some statutes, the threat is considered as an independent offense. Thus a threat without any motive is also punishable.
[i] Commonwealth v. Mann, 111 Pa. Super. 371 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1934).
[ii] Robinson v. Bradley, 300 F. Supp. 665 (D. Mass. 1969).