Extortion is a criminal offense characterized by the willingness of the victim to relinquish goods or services to avoid a threatened harm. Crimes of extortion including blackmail, bribery, and ransom are generally considered felony crimes. Felony crimes require substantial evidence for conviction. Serious penalties are imposed on a person convicted of the offense of extortion. The punishment includes: heavy fines, prison sentence, probation or parole and restitution for the victims. A person convicted of the offense of extortion is entitled to claim common defenses available to defend a criminal trial. A valid claim of right defense for the offense of extortion varies from one state to another.
Common defenses available for an allegation of extortion are:
- insufficient evidence;
- absence of intent to commit a crime;
- proving factual innocence;
- Proving incapacity, insanity or intoxication;
- Proving accuser’s ownership over the property;
- Proving the absence of threat, force, or fear for inducing consent.
Generally, threatening harm means a wrongful use of violence or fear. In an extortion, the victim must reasonably believe that the threat is real. When an accused succeeds in showing lack of threatening harm and the reasonable belief of truth, a charge for extortion can be dismissed for lack of evidence. Extortion is an intended crime and requires the proof of intention. Failure on the part of prosecution to prove intention turns to be a valid defense to a charge for extortion. Insanity at the time of offense or during the trial is a valid defense in a charge for extortion. As an intended crime, extortion requires capacity of the accused to commit an offense. When an offender proves his/her incapacity, s/he can succeed in a trial for extortion. Additionally, voluntary intoxication is not an excuse or a justification of a crime. However, in specific intent crimes, voluntary intoxication can be raised as a defense[i].
Defenses to extortion include challenges to the manner in which the authorities collected evidence. An accused can plead illegal search, illegal seizure, illegal interrogation, and coercion.
The common-law definition of the crime of extortion limits the crime of extortion to acts committed by a public officer. It is considered extortion for a public servant to demand or receive money that is not due to them through legal means. Law enforcement officers can be guilty of extortion when a public officer accepts fees greater than those allowed. A police officer arresting someone with corrupt intentions and demanding money or other material goods can be charged for extortion. However, a public officer charged with the offense of extortion cannot plead that s/he received the property as gratuity or tip[ii].
A person demanding or receiving money under a threat of informing, or as a consideration for not informing, against any violation of any law of the U S. is punishable for the offense of extortion[iii]. Moreover, a person with intent to extort from any person, any money, transmits in interstate or foreign commerce any communication is liable for punishment[iv]. Criminal statutes based on the government’s interest in regulating interstate commerce do not generally require that an offender must have knowledge of the interstate nexus of his actions. Thus knowledge cannot be raised as defense in such cases[v].
A person commits theft by extortion by knowingly obtaining or seeking to obtain property or services by means of a threat to do something in the future. It is not of relevance that the asserted fact was true or false. It is enough that the threat subjects anyone to hatred, contempt or ridicule or to impair his/her credit or business. A threat, criminal or legitimate constitutes a form of expression. The threat must be to reveal the truth regarding another person[vi].
[i] State v. Gonzales, 253 Kan. 22 (Kan. 1993).
[ii] Commonwealth v. Hopkins, 165 Pa. Super. 561 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1949).
[iii] 18 USCS § 873.
[iv] 18 USCS § 875.
[v] United States v. Blackmon, 839 F.2d 900 (2d Cir. N.Y. 1988).
[vi] State v. Weinstein, 182 Ariz. 564, 566 (Ariz. Ct. App. 1995).