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The obtaining of property from another induced by wrongful use of actual or threatened force, violence, or fear, or under color of official right.
Under the common law, extortion is a misdemeanor consisting of an unlawful taking of money by a government officer. It is an oppressive misuse of the power with which the law clothes a public officer.
Most jurisdictions have statutes governing extortion that broaden the common-law definition. Under such statutes, any person who takes money or property from another by means of illegal compulsion may be guilty of the offense. When used in this sense, extortion is synonymous with blackmail, which is extortion by a private person. In addition, under some statutes a corporation may be liable for extortion.
Elements of Offense
Virtually all extortion statutes require that a threat must be made to the person or property of the victim. Threats to harm the victim's friends or relatives may also be included. It is not necessary for a threat to involve physical injury. It may be sufficient to threaten to accuse another person of a crime or to expose a secret that would result in public embarrassment or ridicule. The threat does not have to relate to an unlawful act. Extortion may be carried out by a threat to tell the victim's spouse that the victim is having an illicit sexual affair with another.
Other types of threats sufficient to constitute extortion include those to harm the victim's business and those to either testify against the victim or withhold testimony necessary to his or her defense or claim in an administrative proceeding or a lawsuit. Many statutes also provide that any threat to harm another person in his or her career or reputation is extortion.
Under the common law and many statutes, an intent to take money or property to which one is not lawfully entitled must exist at the time of the threat in order to establish extortion. Statutes may contain words such as "willful" or "purposeful" in order to indicate the intent element. When this is so, someone who mistakenly believes he or she is entitled to the money or property cannot be guilty of extortion. Some statutes, however, provide that any unauthorized taking of money by an officer constitutes extortion. Under these statutes, a person may be held strictly liable for the act, and an intent need not be proven to establish the crime.
Statutes governing extortion by private persons vary in content. Many hold that a threat accompanied by the intent to acquire the victim's property is sufficient to establish the crime; others require that the property must actually be acquired as a result of the threat. Extortion by officials is treated similarly. Some statutes hold that the crime occurs when there is a meeting of the minds between the officer and the party from whom the money is exacted.
Extortion by Public Officers
The essence of extortion by a public officer is the oppressive use of official position to obtain a fee. The officer falsely claims authority to take that to which he or she is not lawfully entitled. This is known as acting under color of office. For example, a highway department officer who collects money from a tax delinquent automobile owner in excess of the authorized amount on the pretense of collecting a fine is extorting money under color of office. The victim, although consenting to payment, is not doing so voluntarily but is yielding to official authority.
There are four basic ways in which a public officer commits extortion. The officer might demand a fee not allowed by law and accept it under the guise of performing an official duty. He or she might take a fee greater than that allowed by law. In this case the victim must at least believe that he or she is under an obligation to pay some amount. A third method is for the officer to receive a fee before it is due. The crime is committed regardless of whether the sum taken is likely to become due in the future. It is not criminal, however, for an officer to collect a fee before it is due if the person paying so requests. Finally, extortion may be committed by the officer's taking a fee for services that are not performed. The service refrained from must be one within the official capacity of the officer in order to constitute extortion.
Other Crimes Distinguished
Robbery differs from extortion in that the property is taken against the will and without the consent of the victim, unlike extortion, where the victim consents, although unwillingly, to surrender money or property. Another distinguishing factor is that the nature of the threat for robbery is limited to immediate physical harm to the victim or his or her home. Extortion, on the other hand, encompasses a greater variety of threats.
False pretenses is another crime that is similar to extortion. The main difference is that in the case of false pretenses, the property is obtained by a lie rather than a threat.
A person who acts under a claim of right (an honest belief that he or she has a right to the money or property taken) may allege this factor as an affirmative defense to an extortion charge. What constitutes a valid claim of right defense may vary from one jurisdiction to another. For example, M, a department store manager, accuses C, a customer, of stealing certain merchandise. M threatens to have C arrested for larceny unless C compensates M for the full value of the item. In some jurisdictions it is only necessary for M to prove that he or she had an honest belief that C took the merchandise in order for M to avoid an extortion conviction. Other jurisdictions apply a stricter test, under which M's belief must be based upon circumstances that would cause a reasonable person to believe that C took the item. Another, more stringent, test requires that C in fact owe the money to M. Finally, some states entirely reject the claim of right defense on the theory that M's threat is an improper means of collecting a debt.
Extortion is generally punished by a fine or imprisonment, or both. When the offense is committed by a public officer, the penalty may include forfeiture of office. Under some statutes, the victim of an extortion may bring a civil action and recover pecuniary damages.
Extortion is also a federal offense when it interferes with interstate commerce. It is punishable by a fine, imprisonment, or both. Another federal statute makes it a crime to engage in extortionate credit transactions.
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Friedman, Lawrence M. 2002. "Name Robbers: Privacy, Blackmail, and Assorted Matters in Legal History." Hofstra Law Review 30 (summer): 1093–1132.
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