Extortion in California: Laws, Different Types & Penalties

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Crimes of extortion and blackmail often light up the news headlines. These are theft crimes of coercion, whereby someone obtains money, property or other benefits from another person by threats. Although not all extortion is blackmail, California lumps them together in one section of the Penal Code called the California Extortion and Blackmail Law.

Extortion in California

Extortion is primarily a crime – illegal behavior prosecuted by the district attorney and punished by fines or jail or both. But a private individual can also sue someone for money damages for extortion in California.

What is the definition of extortion in California? The term means coercing a victim into giving the perpetrator money, property or services by threatening harm if they don't give you what you want. Penal Code 518 defines it as getting someone else to give you property or other considerations or getting a public officer to do an official act by "wrongful use of force or fear or under color of official right."

What is the definition of extortion in California? The term means coercing a victim into giving the perpetrator money, property or services by threatening harm if they don't give you what you want. Penal Code 518 defines it as getting someone else to give you property or other considerations or getting a public officer to do an official act by "wrongful use of force or fear or under color of official right."

Read More: Extortion Laws in California

Three Types of Extortion

The statute sets out three types of conduct that are classified as extortion, which include:

  1. Using force or threats to compel someone to give you money or other property.
  2. Using force or threats to compel a public officer to perform an official act.
  3. Using acts under "color of official right" to compel another person to give up money or other property if you are a public official.

Almost any kind of threat suffices for this crime. Theses can include threats of violence to the person or their family, threats to destroy or remove the person's property as well as threats by a public official to make an official decision that is against the interests of the person threatened. It can also be a threat to expose a secret about the person or to report their immigration status.

It is interesting that, originally, extortion was always a crime committed by public officials who extorted bribes by threatening government action against someone's interests. For example, a municipal officer might threaten to deny a building permit unless the landowner lined the officer's pockets.

Extortion vs. Blackmail

What's the difference between blackmail and extortion in California? The terms are often used synonymously but they mean slightly different things. Essentially all blackmail is extortion but not all extortion is blackmail.

What is blackmail? It happens if someone threatens to reveal embarrassing, damaging or incriminating information about you or your family members unless you do what is asked, usually handing over money or property. Even if the information is true or actually incriminating, a person can still be charged with blackmail in California if they threaten to reveal it unless you meet their demands.

A typical example of blackmail is threatening to publish information about an illicit affair unless money changes hands. Another type of blackmail these days is threatening to publish nude photos of the victim unless large sums of money are paid.

Penalties for Extortion in California

Extortion in California is a felony, punishable by two to four years behind bars. It can also bring a fine of up to $10,000 and probation.

Attempted extortion occurs when someone makes the extortion demand but the victim refuses to do the thing demanded. The case is a wobbler under the Penal Code and can be charged as a felony or as a misdemeanor depending on circumstances.

Civil Extortion

California also allows victims of extortion to sue to recover damages whether or not the criminal case is prosecuted. This is termed civil extortion. You can only sue for civil extortion if you actually paid the money or gave over the property demanded.

Who might sue for civil extortion? It's not hard to come up with examples from the headlines. Hackers these days are taking over hospital and city computers and threatening to delete information unless they are paid a lot of money. If a hospital paid and then the hacker was identified, the hospital could sue to recover the moneys paid.

Tips

  • The legal definition of extortion varies slightly by state so check your state's criminal law code for the exact requirements. Extortion is considered a felony in all states.