Extortion is also commonly referred to as blackmail, where a person uses threats or force to persuade another to give property or money. Extortion can also be used to force a public official to carry out an official act. When you get accused of extortion or blackmail in California, it is a felony offense severely punished with incarceration and hefty fines.
Misunderstandings can also be confused for extortion, where one is accused of the crime falsely. Regardless of whether the allegations are true or not, the most critical thing for you is to avoid a conviction, or to get a favorable outcome. Finding a criminal attorney when faced with these accusations is necessary for an excellent result. If you are in Los Angeles, an attorney from Leah Legal has extensive experience to defend you against these allegations.
Defining Extortion According to PEN 518 in California
The law defines extortion based on its four elements that a prosecutor must prove to get a conviction. These elements include:
- That the accused threatened to carry out any of the below to the supposed victim:
- Injure, use force or threaten the victim or a loved one to acquire their property or money
- Accuse the victim or a loved one of an offense or
- Revealing the victim’s secret or involving their loved ones or associating them with a scandal or crime to disgrace them.
- When the defendant used force or threats, he or she intended to make the victim consent to giving them property, money, or performing an official duty.
- Because of the threats, the supposed victim gave the accused property, or money or did an official duty.
- The supposed victim actually gave in to the defendant’s demands and gave them property or money or did the official deed.
When accused of the crime of extortion, the prosecutor must prove any of these aspects for a conviction. On the other hand, your criminal defense attorney will discredit the evidence produced to create doubt and get the case dismissed.
Some words or phrases used in defining the crime of extortion must be well understood to constitute a crime. These words include:
A person can be found guilty of blackmail even when they don’t actually injure the victim or also use force. What would matter according to the law, is the threats used against the victim. For threats to be used in extortion charges, the defendant must have:
- Demanded for a specified amount of money to be given or,
- Used specific words to threaten or other suggestive words instead. A threat can be subtly conveyed or implied depending on the circumstances.
Interestingly, you get charged with violating PEN 518 even when:
- You threaten to perform a perfectly legal act or
- You are convinced to have a legal right over the property or money you want to receive by extortion; for instance, if the alleged victim of the extortion owed you the property or money.
For instance, if Gary finds out his neighbor Mary grows marijuana in her compound, he may threaten to tell the authorities unless she gives him pot for free each month. Although the act of reporting Mary is legal, he can still face extortion charges. This is possible because he threatens Mary with exposure, unless she gives him something in return.
Injury based on the extortion law in California, it means criminal damage. This means you cannot be charged with extortion if you use threats to indicate that you will do something that you are legally entitled to do. However, you will be found guilty of blackmail when you threaten another person or their assets, which you do not have a right to under the law.
For instance, John owes Peter money. Unfortunately, Peter has tried to get John to pay him in vain. He instead threatens John with a beating if he declines to pay him. Legally, Peter has no legal right to inflict corporal punishment on John. According to the extortion law of California, Peter can get charged with extortion.
On the other hand, if you threaten a person or their property and you have a legal right to do so, you cannot be charged with the offense. For instance, Hanna wants to extend her house. However, according to the homeowner’s association, she must consent from her neighbors before she continues. On approaching her neighbor Tom, he asks her for $500 for him to give his permission for the extension.
Arguably, Tom threatens to injure Hanna’s property if not given the money he asked for. But, based on their bylaws, he has a right to deny her consent to extend her house. If Tom declines to consent to her request, he cannot get charged with extortion. This is because he has not inflicted any unlawful injury to Hanna’s property.
Exposing a Secret
According to the law on extortion, a secret is defined as:
- An unknown fact to people or to a person that has an interest in finding it out and
- Would cause harm to the supposed victim’s reputation or credibility and other investments to a great extent such that he or she would be willing to give property or money or even do a thing to protect revealing of the fact.
For instance, Cindy is the mayor of her city and maintains that she graduated from an Ivy League university. Unfortunately, Grace, a resident that went to college with her, knows Cindy went to the university but did not graduate. This is a secret that Cindy has kept, but Grace uses it to threaten her to get her daughter a job in the city, or make the secret public.
Because Cindy’s secret is unknown to the greater public, if revealed, it will cause damage to her reputation and integrity. Based on this, Grace can be charged with extortion because her behavior meets its definition.
When a government employee or a public official does something in their capacity as such, it is termed as an official duty. Every employee has particular mandates or obligations they should perform according to their job description. When one is accused of threatening a government official with extortion, it is so that they may do a specific duty in a particular way.
For instance, when a congress member is to vote on a gun-right issue, an activist may approach him and demand that he should vote against the motion. If the congressman declines to vote as directed, his extramarital affair will get exposed.
Typically, congress members vote regularly on various laws as part of their official duties. When the activist blackmails or extorts the congressman to vote in a certain way, it is an offense punishable according to the law.
According to PEN 518 that speaks of extortion, consent in this case is defined specially. Usually, consent is permission given willingly and freely. But, under the law on extortion, consent means coerced agreement that an alleged victim gives unwillingly because they are forced or scared.
When a threat is given and the fear of force that accompanies it, it is the reason consent gets obtained to receive property or money from the other party. Equally, it is the reason to compel a public official to perform their duty in a particular way.
The Act or Deed must have been Done
Another critical element for extortion in California is when the alleged victim carried out the deed that they agreed to under coercion. This means they must have parted with their property or money or have carried out an official duty. If this happens, the extortion offense is completed.
However, as earlier mentioned, you can still get accused of attempted extortion even when the victim did not carry out the act. But, according to the extortion statute in California, two other kinds of extortions exist that are defined slightly differently. These are:
- Using a threatening mail or letter to extort and
- You are extorting a signature.
PEN 523 – Using a Threatening Letter to Extort
You can also get charged with extortion if you wrote a threatening letter to demand something. According to PEN 523, this offense is best defined when the perpetrator fulfills the following elements to the crime:
- The defendant or perpetrator delivered or sent a letter, email or other types of a written document to another threatening them,
- And in that letter, the perpetrator threatened to:
- Cause harm to the person, their loved one or their assets illegally,
- Make criminal allegations against the person, their family member or a loved one or
- Reveal a secret not known to the public regarding the victim, or their loved one to connect them to a criminal offense or discredit them, and
- When the defendant sent the letter, he or she planned to use it as a threat to gain property, money, or get something done by a public official.
Based on the above, violating PEN 523 is similar to PEN 518, where extortion is carried out by the use of fear and force. However, two main differences include:
- When one gets charged with extortion through the use of a threatening letter. The threat to the victim must be in writing either through a message, email or other means, and
- The supposed victim doesn’t have to have given their property or money or committed an official duty or agreed to it, for a person to be found guilty.
For instance, if Christy puts her profile online to meet men in chat rooms and have brief sexual encounters, she can use this to extort them. If she writes letters or emails threatening them with sexual assault allegations, if they refuse to give her money, it is extortion even when none consents to the threat. If any of them reports her to the authorities, she can get charged with blackmail, resulting in hefty fines or jail time, if not both.
PEN 522 – Extorting Signature
When one gets charged with extorting a signature in California, a conviction will mean all the elements to the crime are actual. These are:
- The perpetrator threatened the alleged victim with any of the following:
- To unlawfully injure the victim, their property, or a loved one
- Accuse them of a crime, or their loved one or a family member or
- Reveal a secretly kept fact about the person or their loved one and connect them to an offense to disgrace them.
- The threat is intended to make the person append their signature to a document. Or a check transferring property or money to them or leaving the victim with a debt, and
- Because of the threats, the victim actually signs a check or the documents presented.
Just like extortion by issuing a threatening letter, one can be found guilty of the offense even when they never actually obtained the property or money from the victim. What the law looks at to be found guilty is if a document was actually signed.
For instance, if Mary has a rich auntie and knows that one of her children is from a different father, yet this fact is not known, she can use that as extortion. She threatens her auntie with the revealing of the secret unless she includes her in her will. Later, her auntie tears the will and writes another one where Mary will inherit nothing when the auntie dies. Although Mary will receive nothing upon the aunt’s death, she can be charged with extortion because she has a signed document transferring property to her.
Penalties for Violating PEN 518 – Extortion
In California, when charged with extortion or blackmail, you face felony charges, and a conviction carries the following sentences:
- A county jail imprisonment for two or three or four years,
- A hefty fine not exceeding $10,000
- A formal probation together with or instead of the fine.
When the crime of extortion was carried out against a mentally or physically challenged individual dependent on others or an elderly, the penalties are enhanced. These aggravating factors increase the penalties a defendant faces. Additionally, according to the Three Strikes law of California, a conviction on this crime can earn the defendant a strike. However, this happens only when the offense is connected to gang activity, according to PEN 186.22.
However, for the enhancement, according to PEN 186.22 to apply, one must have performed extortion to benefit or in conjunction with an illegal street gang directly. The act must also have been to help or enhance the criminal activities of the group.
Attempted Extortion Penalties
Earlier, it was stated that even when the perpetrator of the offense never benefited from the criminal act, they will still get charged with attempted extortion. This offense is a wobbler meaning one can face misdemeanor or felony charges.
The penalties for a misdemeanor conviction include:
- County imprisonment for not more than a year,
- A fine not exceeding $1,000,
- You get sentenced to summary probation in addition to or instead of the fine.
When one gets charged with a felony, a conviction results in the following penalties:
- A more extended county jail imprisonment lasting sixteen or twenty-four or thirty-six months,
- A hefty fine not exceeding $10,000
- You get sentenced to formal probation in addition to or instead of the fine or jail time.
According to the statute, there are some types of extortions that are directly punishable as misdemeanors. You can be charged with misdemeanor extortion when:
- You use another person or directly deliver a document that is falsely claiming it as an official document from the court. The document is designed in a way to persuade the supposed victim that it is a court document,
- Whose purpose is to gain property or money from the alleged victim by extortion.
Additionally, you can be found guilty of this misdemeanor offense when you print, share, or sell or participate in the making of the document. When you get convicted of the crime, you will face the following penalties:
- County jail imprisonment for not more than six months,
- You pay a fine not exceeding $1,000 besides or instead of the jail time.
Legal Defenses for PEN 518 Violations
When charged with the crime of extortion, a conviction will adversely affect your life. For a defendant to avoid a conviction or to get a favorable outcome, hiring an experienced defense attorney is critical. After studying the prosecutor’s case, your lawyer will formulate defense strategies to give you the most beneficial results. Some of the common defenses your attorney may use include:
- Consent – For a conviction on extortion charges to be reached, the defendant’s threat should be the only reason the victim consented to releasing their money or property. However, your lawyer can show that your threat was not the reason; instead, other reasons compelled the victim to consent. If this argument is substantial, you will not be convicted of the crime.
- False accusations – Persons falsely accusing others with criminal allegations are common. The alleged victim may have given you their money or property willingly and later realizes he or she should not have to. If they ask for the property back and you refuse, or you had already used it, they can claim you extorted them. Your attorney will bring forth evidence that no threats or coercion was used, and the accusations against you are based on falsehoods. If this argument is accepted, you will be innocent of the offense.
- Insufficient evidence – Before one is convicted of a crime, the prosecutor must prove that a crime was committed beyond a reasonable doubt. If the prosecutor has insufficient evidence, he or she cannot convince the jury of your guilt. Your attorney will challenge the circumstantial evidence and get you a win.
Find a Criminal Defense Attorney Near Me
Criminal allegations are devastating, let alone a guilty verdict. The primary goal for anyone accused of a crime is to avoid a conviction, especially when they are innocent. Sometimes you may not be aware that your actions can be termed as extortion, and you face criminal charges. Whatever the case, an experienced Leah Legal attorney can help you prove your innocence from the allegations. Call us at 818-484-1100 to further discuss your situation and how to win it.