Extortion is a type of theft crime. In order to better understand the crime of extortion, you must first understand the crimes of fraud, larceny, and embezzlement. Both larceny and embezzlement are types of theft crimes that deal with the taking of another’s property without consideration or permission from the owner of the property.
Criminal fraud, on the other hand, occurs when an individual misrepresents a material fact that they know to be false with an intent to deceive another. This results in an actual injury or damages to the individual that relies on the misrepresentation.
Larceny is the unlawful taking of the property of another without the permission of the owner, coupled with the intent to permanently deprive the owner of that property. Embezzlement is similar to larceny in that it involves the taking of the property of another person or business. However, in the case of embezzlement, the person who performs the taking has permission to access and handle the funds.
False pretenses is another theft crime that is a combination of fraud and larceny where an individual lies or makes misrepresentations in order to obtain the property of another. False pretenses are similar to the theft crime of “larceny by trick,” which involves convincing someone to transfer possession of their property through an act of deception.
Extortion, on the other hand, involves a threat of harm being made in the act of the theft. The main difference between extortion and false pretenses is that in the case of false pretenses, the property is obtained by a lie rather than a threat.
Common examples of extortion include:
- Threats to physically harm the victim harmed by extortion or someone close to the victim;
- Threats to damage the victim’s property;
- Oral or written threats to ruin the victim’s reputation, otherwise called blackmail.
It is important to note that extortion is a felony offense in all states. As such, criminal penalties for extortion will typically include imprisonment of more than one year, severe criminal fines, property forfeiture, and restitution to the victim.
How to Prove Extortion?
It is important to note that as a criminal act, it is the burden of the state or federal prosecutor to prove the criminal act of extortion rather than the victim of extortion. In doing so, the state or federal prosecutor must prove each and every element of the crime of extortion beyond a reasonable doubt. Importantly, the exact criminal elements necessary to prove extortion will differ from state to state.
Although the exact definition of extortion differs by jurisdiction, extortion is the theft crime of wrongfully obtaining money or property through oral or written threats. Specifically, extortion involves:
A threat or use of force against someone to make someone do something when one does not have the right to do it;
The person that makes the threat intended to make the victim give them something valuable or perform an act;
The threat of use of force made the victim consent to giving the defendant something valuable or performing an act; and
The victim actually transferred something valuable or performed an act for the offender.
What Are Possible Defenses Against Extortion?
Due to the violent nature of the crime of extortion, most states consider extortion to be a serious crime and treat it as such. However, a person accused of extortion does have some legal defenses they may be able to utilize, depending on the specific circumstances of their case. If a defendant is able to successfully assert a legal defense to the charges brought against them, the charges may be lessened or dropped completely. Examples of common extortion defenses may include:
- Factual Innocence: If the prosecution fails to prove each and every element beyond a reasonable doubt, then the defendant is not guilty.
- Once again, extortion requires a threat to do harm or expose information. As such, if there was no threat or the alleged victim was unreasonable in interpreting a comment as a threat, the elements of extortion have not been met;
- Insufficient Evidence: If there is inadequate evidence to support a finding that extortion occurred, the case must also be thrown out before it reaches a judge or jury.
- Typically, an experienced criminal defense lawyer will make challenges to the manner in which law enforcement authorities may have collected evidence. These include wrongful search, seizure, and interrogation claims in order to throw out or limit the amount of evidence available against the defendant at trial;
- Intoxication, Insanity, or Incapacity: All of these legal defenses relate to the defendant’s mental state at the time of the commission of the crime.
- Intoxication, insanity, or incapacity may bar a conviction for extortion if they negate the requisite “mens rea” or “state of mind” necessary to perform the crime of extortion.
- Additionally, these conditions might also affect whether it was reasonable for the alleged victim to believe the threat was genuine;
- Mistake: The defense of mistake is available when there was a reasonable mistake of fact or ignorance of a fact that negates the requisite “mens rea” for extortion.
- For example, the defendant might have reasonably believed the property he was attempting to obtain or defend was his own. If this is the case, the charges brought against them may be lessened or dismissed; and
- Duress: This affirmative defense would be usable if the defendant were forced by threat of death or bodily injury to commit the extortion. In other words, the defendant felt they had no other choice but to commit the crime.
- Importantly, proving duress may prove to be difficult because a defendant who could have avoided committing extortion without risking death or bodily injury will not be able to succeed with this defense.
Once again, if the defendant is unsuccessful in raising a proper legal defense to the charges brought against them, then they will be punished in accordance with the laws of their jurisdiction. In most cases, as a felony, the punishment for extortion will depend on a variety of different factors. When determining how to punish an extortion conviction, some of the following factors will be considered:
- Whether or not there was a use of a firearm or other weapon;
- The defendant’s previous criminal record, specifically prior theft or extortion charges;
- Whether or not the defendant is currently on probation;
- The type of property that was extorted and the value of that property.
Legal consequences for being convicted of extortion may include:
- Imprisonment ranging from one year to life, depending on the specifics of the case;
- Alternative criminal sentencing, such as probation;
- Loss of professional licensure or the ability to vote in an election;
- Criminal fines and court fees, including the payment of restitution damages, if the property was damaged or destroyed;
- Court-ordered educational or rehabilitating programs.
What if I Have Been Accused of Extortion? Should I Hire a Lawyer?
If you are being charged with extortion, you should consult with a skilled and knowledgeable criminal defense lawyer immediately. An experienced tort lawyer who practices in criminal defense can help you understand your state’s specific laws regarding extortion. Further, an attorney can determine if there are any legal defenses available to your case. Finally, an attorney can represent you in court at any necessary court hearings.