To extort is to obtain something, with the victims consent, usually by threat or intimidation. The crime of extortion initially applied to public officials who illegally obtained the property of others using the power of their offices. California Extortion laws are broader in scope and are defined in California Penal Code sections 518 to 527. To constitute extortion, force or fear must cause the victim to consent to give the defendant something. If there is some other primary cause of the victim’s consent, there is no extortion. The “fear” referred to may be induced by a threat to:
- Injure a person or the victim’s property
- Accuse the victim or a victim’s relative of a crime
- Expose embarrassing or damaging information about the victim or victim’s relative
- Reveal or expose a secret about the victim or his family.
In California, extortion is charged as a felony and is punishable by up to four years in state prison and a fine of up to $10,000. The penalty for attempted extortion is up to two years in state prison. Extortion may also be charged as a federal crime when the extortion is committed by computer (email), by mail, phone or any other instrument of interstate commerce.
A variety of offenses are related to and/or confused with the crime of extortion. The following list describes some of these similar offenses:
- Blackmail: Blackmail and extortion are routinely used interchangeably, but blackmailing someone is actually a type of extortion. Blackmailing involves obtaining something of value by threatening to damage someone’s reputation by disclosing harmful or disreputable information.
- Bribery: Bribery is offering or accepting anything of value in exchange for influence on a public or government official, athlete, sports official, witness or juror.
- Robbery: Robbery is taking property from a person using force or fear. It is different than extortion, where the victim consents (although unwillingly) and surrenders the money or property. Another factor that distinguishes robbery from extortion is the harm to the victim. Robbery involves a threat of immediate physical harm to the victim whereas extortion encompasses a broader variety of threats.
- Lobbying: Lobbying is attempting to influence the mindset of public officials, politicians, or legislators to serve a particular cause. Lobbying per se is not a crime but when money is introduced and favors are done in exchange, the crime of bribery may be considered.