Extortion and Threats– California Penal Code 518
California and federal law penalize the act of forcing someone to give up something of value or to influence a public officer by threats or extortion. Individuals who are facing these charges should be aware of the nature of the charges against them and the possible penalties that may result from conviction.
Under California law, extortion is committed when someone does any of the following:
- Uses force or threatens to use force to get another person to give him or her money or property
- Uses force or threatens to use force to compel a public officer to perform an official act
- As a public official acting under his or her official duty to compel another person to give him or her money or property1
Additionally, the person must be compelled to act due to the threat and actually do the act requested. The defendant must intend to force the victim into consenting to give the defendant money, something of value or the commission of a certain act. The defendant must also threaten one of the following:
- Unlawfully injure or cause harm to the victim, a third party or the victim’s property;
- Accuse him or her or a family member of a crime; or
- Expose a secret or cause scandal to him, her or a family member
Each of these elements contains specific language with special legal meaning.
It is not necessary under California law for the defendant to actually injure the victim. He or she can simply threaten to harm him or her. Even subtle threatens can amount to an extortion charge.
The injury that is caused or threatened must be an unlawful injury, meaning that the defendant must not have the legal right to take some action.
A secret is specifically defined under California law. It is something that is generally unknown to the public that can harm the victim’s reputation.2 The secret must be the type that would lead a person to give up money or property or commit an official act to prevent the secret from being revealed.
An official act is an act that a public officer does within the authority of his or her position.3 For example, extortion may be present when someone tries to influence a congressman’s vote.
In order for a person to be convicted for extortion under California law, the act that was coerced must be performed. It is not enough if the victim just said he or she would pay money or take certain action; the victim must actually perform this act.
Penalties for Extortion
The penalties for extortion depend on how the offense is charged.
In most situations, extortion is charged as a felony in California. A felony conviction for extortion can result in a jail sentence of two, three or four years and a fine up to $10,000.4
Misdemeanor extortion can be charged if the defendant delivers a false document that states it is a court document or made in such a way to convince the victim that it is and the defendant has the intent to acquire property or something of value based on the document.5 This crime can result in up to six months in jail and a fine up to $10,000.6
Attempted extortion is charged when there is an attempt but not completed act of extortion. This can result if the victim did not carry out the coerced act. Attempted extortion can be charged as a misdemeanor or felony offense. A misdemeanor offense carries a maximum penalty of one year in county jail and a fine up to $1,000.7 Alternatively, the defendant could be sentenced to summary probation. Felony attempted extortion can result in a penalty of sixteen months, two years or three years in county jail, a fine up to $10,000 and felony probation.
Extortion may also be charged at the federal level. These charges are more likely to result when threats or extortion occurred over a form of interstate commerce, such as using the mail, email, telephone, text or other computer or wireless communication. There are also several prohibited forms of extortion at the federal level, including the following:
- Threats against the president and successors to the presidency
- Extortion by officers or employees of the United States
- Kickbacks from public works employees
- Interstate communications
- Mailing threatening communications
- Mailing threatening communications from foreign county
- Threats and extortion against foreign officials, official guests or internationally protected persons
- Threats against former presidents and certain other persons
- Receiving the proceeds of extortion9
1 Penal Code 518 PC – Definition [of extortion]. (“Extortion is the obtaining of property from another, with his consent, or the obtaining of an official act of a public officer, induced by a wrongful use of force or fear, or under color of official right.”)
2 CALCRIM 1830, Extortion by Threat or Force. (“A secret is a fact that: 1. Is unknown to the general public or to someone who might be interested in knowing the fact; AND 2. Harms the threatened person’s reputation or other interest so greatly that he or she would be likely to (give the defendant money[or property]/[or] do an official act) to prevent the fact from being revealed.]”)
3 CALCRIM 1830 – Extortion by Threat or Force. (“[An official act is an act that a person does in his or her official capacity, using the authority of his or her public office.]”)
4 Penal Code 520 PC – Punishment [for extortion]. (“Every person who extorts any money or other property from another, under circumstances not amounting to robbery or carjacking, by means of force, or any threat, such as is mentioned in Section 519, shall be punished by imprisonment pursuant to subdivision (h) of Section 1170 for two, three or four years.”)
5 Penal Code 526 PC – Use of documents resembling court order or process [form of extortion]; intent; separate offense for each delivery. (“Any person, who, with intent to obtain from another person any money, article of personal property or other thing of value, delivers or causes to be delivered to the other person any paper, document or written, typed or printed form purporting to be an order or other process of a court, or designed or calculated by its writing, typing or printing, or the arrangement thereof, to cause or lead the other person to believe it to be an order or other process of a court, when in fact such paper, document or written, typed or printed form is not an order or process of a court, is guilty of a misdemeanor, and each separate delivery of any paper, document or written, typed or printed form shall constitute a separate [blackmail or extortion] offense.”)
6 Penal Code 19 PC – Punishment for misdemeanor [including misdemeanor extortion]; punishment not otherwise prescribed. (“Except in cases where a different punishment is prescribed by any law of this state, every offense declared to be a misdemeanor is punishable by imprisonment in the county jail not exceeding six months, or by fine not exceeding one thousand dollars ($1,000), or by both.”)
7 Penal Code 524 PC – Attempts; punishment [extortion]. (“Every person who attempts, by means of any threat, such as is specified in Section 519 of this [California Penal] code, to extort money or other property from another is punishable by imprisonment in the county jail not longer than one year or in the state prison or by fine not exceeding ten thousand dollars ($10,000), or by both such fine and imprisonment.”)
8 See 18 U.S. Code Section 873 – “Whoever, under a threat of informing, or as a consideration for not informing, against any violation of any law in the United States, demands or receives any money or other valuable thing, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than one year, or both.
9 See 18 U.S. Code Sections 871-890, respectively.