Using threats or extortion in order to demand money, property, or services is a crime under both federal and state law. Blackmail is generally a felony offense that can carry severe penalties for offenders. 

If you are facing charges of blackmail or extortion, it is crucial that you seek the counsel of a criminal defense attorney who has expertise and experience in federal law and representing clients in these types of serious and often complex cases. 

What is blackmail?

Blackmail is a crime in which the offender coerces or persuades someone into taking a particular action by threatening to release damaging information. The assumption is that, if the victim complies with the offender’s demands, the threatened conduct will not be carried out. Some types of information that an offender might threaten to release include:

  • Details that might harm the victim’s reputation
  • Illegal or unethical conduct 
  • Embarrassing information 
  • Information that could compromise the safety of the victim or their loved ones

For a case to constitute blackmail, the offender must make the threat for the purpose of gaining money, property, or services or to coerce the victim into performing an action of refraining from performing an action. 

Example of a blackmail case

Pete puts a letter on his neighbor Ted’s windshield stating that, if Ted does not pay him $5,000, Pete will tell Ted’s wife that he has been having an affair while she is away on business. 

Federal extortion and threats

Extortion is a specific type of blackmail in which the offender demands goods or services under threat of exposing — or consideration for not exposing — violations of the law. Essentially, the information that the offender is threatening to expose is the victim’s own illegal activity. 

Extortion often involves one-on-one conversations or meetings between the victim and offender and may also involve the offender possessing evidence of the victim’s illegal activity, such as documents or tape-recorded conversations.

Blackmail and extortion cases in which a defendant threatens to report criminal activity that would not be prosecuted federally (such as petty theft or simple drug possession) fall under the jurisdiction of the state. However, threats to expose, or consideration for not exposing, violations of federal law, specifically, are considered federal extortion under Title 18 of the United States Code, Section 873.

Under 18 U.S.C. § 873, specific types of threats and extortion that are handled by the United States federal court include:

  • 18 U.S.C. § 871 – Threats against the President and successors,
  • 18 U.S.C. § 872 – Extortion by officers or employees of the United States,
  • 18 U.S.C. § 873 – Blackmail,
  • 18 U.S.C. § 874 – Kickbacks from public works employees,
  • 18 U.S.C. § 875 – Interstate communications,
  • 18 U.S.C. § 876 – Mail threatening communications,
  • 18 U.S.C. § 877 – Mail threatening communications from another country,
  • 18 U.S.C. § 878 – Threats against foreign officials, guests, or protected people,
  • 18 U.S.C. § 879 – Treats against former Presidents and certain other people,
  • 18 U.S.C. § 880 – Receiving the proceeds of extortion.

There are certain crimes that may be prosecuted by either the state or federal court, depending on the facts of the case. Generally, the federal government would prosecute a crime under 18 U.S.C. § 873 if the crime crossed state lines, state-level prosecution would be inadequate to handle the case, or the case is of significant interest to the federal government.

Example of a federal extortion case

Christopher is a CEO of a successful company and has acquired a great deal of wealth over the course of his career. While working for Christopher, his former assistant, Kelvin, discovered that Christopher had been hiding a significant number of his financial assets and underreporting his income to the IRS. Rather than reporting Christopher to the authorities, Kelvin decides to blackmail Christopher and sends him an email demanding $1,500,000 in exchange for his not reporting the offense to the press or authorities. 

Kelvin’s actions constitute extortion under 18 U.S.C. § 873. Whether or not Christopher complies with Kelvin’s demands, Kelvin is still guilty of the offense due to his attempt to extort money from his former employer.

Alternatively, if Kelvin didn’t demand any money from Christopher but, instead, threatened to report him to law enforcement unless he turned himself in, Kelvin would not be guilty of violating 18 U.S.C. § 873. This is because Kelvin would not have obtained any money or property as a result of Christopher’s compliance with the threat. 

Penalties for federal extortion

The specific penalties issued for federal extortion are at the discretion of the sentencing judge and depend on the defendant’s criminal history, background, and character, and the facts of the case. Potential penalties for extortion can include up to one year in federal prison and significant fines.

California’s blackmail and extortion laws – What you need to know

In California, blackmail is considered a form of extortion. According to California law, extortion falls under 5 different penal codes, each of which covers a specific type of threat being made. 

  1. Extortion by posing as a kidnapper (Penal Code 210 PC)
  2. Extortion by force or fear (Penal Code 518 PC)
  3. Extortion by signature (Penal Code 522 PC)
  4. Extortion by threatening letter (Penal Code 523 PC)
  5. Extortion by a fake court order (Penal Code 526 PC)

Blackmail falls under Penal Code 518 PC, extortion by force or fear. Penal Code 518 PC is a felony offense that is punishable by:

  • Up to 4 years in state prison and/or
  • Fines of up to $10,000

It is important to note that, for a defendant to be found guilty of violating one of California’s extortion offenses, the victim must have complied with the defendant’s demands. 

If the victim refused to comply with the demands, then the defendant is not guilty of extortion, but may still be found guilty of attempted extortion, California Penal Code 524 PC.

There are a number of legal defenses that may be used to fight blackmail or extortion charges. A criminal defense attorney can examine the facts of your case in order to determine the best defense strategy for you. Some common defenses against charges of blackmail are:

  • No threat was made
  • The defendant has been falsely accused by the alleged victim
  • The defendant didn’t gain anything 
  • The defendant wasn’t trying to gain anything or coerce the alleged victim
  • The alleged victim knew that the defendant would not be able to carry out the supposed threat

In cases where a defendant threatens to expose information about another person as a form of blackmail, it is not a legal defense to demonstrate that the information is true. In order to protect people from becoming victims of blackmail due to mistakes in their past or personal information that they wish to remain private, the law considers the threat of exposing information to be blackmail regardless of whether the information is true or fabricated. 

Federal criminal defense attorney

Blackmail and extortion cases can be particularly complex. For a defendant in a blackmail case, it is essential to have a knowledgeable and experienced criminal defense lawyer on your side who can understand the details of the case and navigate the legal system. Additionally, federal cases are aggressively prosecuted and require a strong and equally aggressive legal defense team. 

Robert M. Helfend is a California criminal defense attorney with over 40 years of experience representing clients in both state and federal cases. He and his staff are dedicated to aggressively defending their clients’ rights and finding the best possible outcome in every case, no matter how complex. If you’re facing criminal charges or are in need of legal advice, call the offices of Robert M. Helfend today – 800-834-6434.

Published October 20, 2023.