Extortion and Blackmail Law

The terms extortion and blackmail are often used interchangeably, although there are differences. Extortion is the illegal and intentional use of threats to one's person or property, coercion, or fraudulent claims of right of public duty (such as impersonating a police officer) for the purpose of taking money, goods, property, services or some other thing of value from a victim against his/her will. These threats can be those of violence, physical harm, criminal prosecution, or public exposure of harmful or secret information that would damage a person's reputation and/or standing in the community. When the threat is to reveal embarrassing, harmful, and/or shameful information about the victim to his/her friends, co-workers, associates, family members or to the public in general, this is generally defined as blackmail, and is usually considered a type of extortion.

What is Extortion Law? The act of extortion is considered a felony in most U.S. States, punishable by fine, incarceration, probation or parole; and restitution payable to the victims. When a public official extorts someone by misusing his/her official position to obtain some advantage, profit or benefit, it is called "extortion under color of official right."

The legal definition of the crime of extortion varies from state to state. In some states only acts of extortion performed by public officials is charged under the crime of extortion, while these acts, when committed by a private individual, are charged as blackmail. When interstate commerce is involved in an act of extortion, either physically or by use of computers, internet, phone or mail, it may be charged as a federal crime.

Whether or not the threat is carried out does not determine whether the crime of extortion has been committed. As long as a verbal, written or printed threat is made; there is intention to purposefully or willfully carry out the threat; and the victim reasonably believes that the threat is real, this is sufficient. Additionally, the threat can be directed toward someone other than the intended victim, such as his/her family member or loved one. Extortion is closely related to bribery and robbery since they are all forms of theft/larceny. However, with robbery, the money or property is taken by force or intimidation, against the victim's will and without his/her consent.

Although rare, in some states, the crime of extortion can also result in a civil lawsuit for damages under tort law. In these cases, it is necessary to show proof of the threat or violence, proof that the extortion resulted in damage/injury and that the person being sued caused the damage.

To consult State Legislation regarding extortion laws and regulations please see the Criminal Code by State page Copyright HG.org

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