When you hear the word extortion, we often think that it is an act perpetrated against politicians, celebrities, or other prominent people. However, there is no specific category of persons that are victims of extortion. Almost everyone can be subject to this act. Equally, anyone can face charges for perpetrating this act under the California Penal Code.
Extortion is a severe crime that can lead to a prison sentence if convicted. If you have been arrested, charged, or are under investigation for extortion, you need to seek legal assistance from a criminal defense attorney. At Orange County Criminal Defense Attorney Law Firm, we have helped several clients in Orange County have charges of this kind dropped or lowered. This is all thanks to our in-depth understanding of California extortion laws and how the legal system works. We will thoroughly review the prosecution’s evidence to uncover any weakness that could grant the best possible outcome. If you or the person you love is facing extortion charges, we invite you to reach out to us for legal representation as soon as possible.
Overview of Extortion Statute
Penal Code (PC) 518 is the law that describes the extortion offense, which is sometimes known as blackmail. You will be considered to have committed this crime when you use threats or force to compel someone else to give you their property or money or make a public officer conduct an official deed. Scenarios that qualify as extortion include:
- Threatening to disclose a public officer’s extramarital relationship if they do not vote in favor of your proposal
- Receiving money from an auto owner after you have threatened them to commit carjacking
- Breaking into a residence and taking jewelry belonging to the owner after threatening to shoot them dead if they don’t comply
Elements of the Crime
The prosecution has to prove various factors successfully for you to be convicted of the crime of extortion. These are the factors we refer to as elements of the crime. They include:
- You threatened to do any of these to the victim in question:
- Use force or commit an illegal injury against them, a third party, or their property
- Accuse them, or their family member/loved one of an offense
- Disclose a secret that involves them or their member of the family, or link them to some form of disgrace, scandal, or crime
- When using force or making your threats, you had the intent to coerce the supposed victim into agreeing to give their property or money to you or to perform an official deed
- Due to your threats, the victim agreed to part with their property/cash or to conduct an official act
- The victim indeed gave you their property or money or did the official deed
Note: extortion is an offense of specific intent. By this, it means you must have had the desire to execute the offense and intend to attain a particular outcome for you to be convicted.
The Legal Meaning of Various Terms Used
Usually, questions arise under the extortion law on what different terms mean. Let’s look at the legal meaning of the words used.
Threaten the Victim
You can be found guilty of committing extortion or blackmail even if you do not hurt the supposed victim, expose their secret, apply force against them, etc. What counts is that you threatened to carry out any of these actions.
Note that the threat has to be the predominant reason that made the victim consent for you to be convicted. If the government official or person consented due to any other major cause, you wouldn’t be found guilty of extortion.
It is also worth keeping in mind that you will be charged with extortion or blackmail even if the action you are threatening to do is lawful or believed that the victim is entitled to the money or property you are trying to gain through the act of extortion.
Here is a scenario of a threat that’s deemed blackmail or extortion: Angie finds out that her neighbor has held captive a little girl in his house to obtain ransom from the girl’s family. She threatens the neighbor to give her his car and $100,000, or she will call the cops on him and report him for kidnapping a minor. In this case, threatening to call the cops to report the neighbor’s action isn’t unlawful. However, using the threat to acquire the neighbor’s car and money or compel them to do something else may qualify to be extortion.
The Victim’s Consent
Consent generally means that someone hands over something willingly and freely. But under this law, it means coerced consent. Consent that’s compelled means the victim hands over something unwillingly and due to wrongful fear or force.
Other Forms of Extortion
California statute establishes other different ways through which an individual can commit the crime of extortion. They include attempted extortion, extortion by use of a threatening letter, or by obtaining a signature.
PC 522, the Crime of Extortion of a Signature
PC 522 is the law that criminalizes the commission of extortion through obtaining a signature from another person to create an entitlement to money, property, or action. An illustration is when you threaten to disclose another person’s secret unless the person appends their signature on a will that says they are leaving all their property to you.
Note that whereas the basic form of extortion under PC 518 requires the victim to do an action or give something valuable for the offense to be complete, PC 522 only requires that the alleged victim appends their signature on the extorting copy. Nothing valuable needs to be given, nor does any action need be performed for a conviction to occur under PC 522.
Penal Code 523, Extortion Through a Threatening Letter
PC 523 is the law that makes it an offense for an individual to commit an extortion offense through a threatening letter. You could be found guilty of violating PC 523 by delivering or sending a threatening letter to a person, threatening to hurt them, a third party, or their property, or reveal their secret. When doing so, you intend to receive an official action, property, or money from that person. A case scenario is a lady who has had sexual intercourse with a married man sending him a threatening letter that says she will tell his wife about it unless he parts with $100,000 to pay her.
It is worth noting that extortion through a threatening letter needs only the intention to extort official acts, money, or property when the letter is received or sent. Unlike PC 518 extortion, the victim under PC 523 need not give the accused anything or carry out an official deed to qualify as a crime. Provided the threat is in writing, the alleged victim does not need to agree to hand over property, money, or do an official action.
Attempted Extortion (PC 524)
PC 524 attempted extortion happens when a person does an action that would qualify to be blackmail but doesn’t complete it. The attempt does not need to be stopped by the police or any other person. The accused can merely opt not to go through with the extortion. Nevertheless, if a significant move towards committing the extortion act was taken, the attempt will be considered complete, and the offense will have been committed. Note that an extortion offense can be executed and still lead to charges of attempted extortion if all the elements are correct.
Legal Defenses to a PC 518 Charge
Facing extortion charges can be an overwhelming experience, particularly when you’re innocent. Regardless of the allegations and the prosecution’s confidence, the law states that you’re innocent until the court proves you guilty. Whereas it’s the prosecution’s burden to show that you’re guilty, you will also need to present a solid defense as a defendant to obtain your freedom. Your defense attorney can use different legal strategies to build a valid defense and challenge the charges against you. The defenses your lawyer can argue are:
Your Act Was Not Illegal
You can argue that the act that made the supposed victim hand over their money, property, or perform an official deed, wasn’t unlawful. It does not count as extortion if your act was legal or you had a lawful right to do what you did to make the victim give you their property/money. For instance, threatening to drag a person to court unless they give you the money they owe you is a case of a threatening act that does not qualify as extortion. If the victim owed you money or property and is proving difficult to repay, you have the right to take legal action against them to obtain what you are owed.
You Didn’t Use Threats or Force
You are only considered to have committed extortion if you threaten someone or perform an act of force against them. This means it’s always acceptable to argue that you didn’t use force or make any threat. It could be that you simply asked the victim for a given amount of money.
The Victim Didn’t Do the Act They Consented to Do
You cannot be convicted of this offense unless the supposed victim does the act they agreed to do. Put otherwise, the crime of extortion necessitates that the victim must, in the real sense, give their property or money to the defendant. Therefore, if you can prove that the alleged victim didn’t perform the consented-to act, you cannot be found guilty of extortion. However, note that in a situation like this, you could be convicted of attempted extortion.
You Were Wrongly/Falsely Accused
Many people in California are wrongly accused of committing the extortion offense all the time. Reasons a victim can raise false allegations of this crime include revenge, ill will, or jealousy. Thus, you can argue the false accusation defense.
The prosecutor has to demonstrate all the elements of extortion for you to be convicted. There are situations where there’s no enough proof to substantiate an extortion or blackmail charge. PC 518 outlines four elements that the prosecutor needs to show, and if they fail to establish even a single factor, extortion or blackmail charges can’t hold.
Prosecutors are usually quick to prosecute a person under extortion law without collecting sufficient proof to support the charges. It could be that there wasn’t any threat to the victim, or the victim misunderstood your actions. A skilled lawyer can assist you in uncovering this defense strategy.
The Victim Parted With the Money or Property Willingly
As far as extortion is concerned, the primary reason the supposed victim handed over their property, money, or did an official deed is that they were afraid that if they didn’t, the defendant would injure them. If the supposed victim consented to your demands for a completely different reason apart from fear, then it’s not extortion.
Penalties for Extortion
Extortion (PC 522), extortion by a signature (PC 522, and extortion through a threatening letter (PC 523) are always felonies. They are punishable by up to $10,000 in fines and a state prison sentence of two, three, or four years. Note that instead of a prison sentence, the court may sentence you to felony probation.
Punishment for Attempted Extortion
In California, attempted extortion is a wobbler crime, which means it can be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony based on the facts surrounding the case and the prosecution’s discretion. If you are found guilty of a misdemeanor, the penalty will include up to $1,000 in fines and a county jail sentence of up to one year. If it’s a felony conviction, the consequences will be a state prison sentence for sixteen months, two or three years, and a fine not exceeding $10,000. Note that either a felony or misdemeanor sentence permits probation.
Extortion Conviction and Its Consequences on Gun Rights
Being convicted under extortion law will negatively impact your gun rights. California law dictates that a person convicted of a felony offense will be denied the right to own, possess, and purchase a firearm. Because extortion is charged as a felony, being convicted will strip you of your gun rights.
If you are a U.S non-citizen, you may suffer negative immigration repercussions if found guilty. California statute labels certain crimes as offenses that involve moral turpitude. If an alien commits any of these crimes, then they can be labeled as inadmissible or deported. One court in California has mentioned that extortion/blackmail is an offense that involves moral turpitude. This means it could result in unfortunate immigration consequences.
Can You Expunge an Extortion Conviction Record Expunged?
If you are convicted of the crime of extortion, you cannot have the conviction record expunged. This is because the law doesn’t permit the deletion of conviction records of offenses for which state prison sentence is imposed.
Related Crimes to Extortion
There are multiple offenses related to the crime of extortion. This is because the crimes share various extortion elements and can be charged alongside or instead of extortion. They include:
Robbery Offense (Penal Code 211)
PC 211 defines a robbery crime as the unlawful taking of individual property in possession of someone else, from their immediate presence or person, and against their will, achieved through fear or force. Robbery is connected to extortion since both offenses require force or fear to compel the victim to hand over something. The difference between these two is that a robbery victim does not have to agree to commit an act or hand over property, while a victim of extortion under Penal Code 518 has to agree to do so for all the elements of the offense to be complete.
Robbery is a felony. If you are found guilty, the consequences of a first-degree robbery are a prison sentence of three, four, six, or nine years in prison while a second-degree robbery carries prison time of two, three, or five years.
Note that you need to have obtained property from the victim against their will to be convicted. Also, even if you eventually return the property, you may still be convicted. This is because a robbery offense is said to have occurred even if the supposed victim is only denied a significant part of property use or its value.
The Crime of Burglary (Penal Code 459)
Burglary is defined under PC 459 as entering any residential or commercial structure or a locked vehicle intending to commit grand theft, petty theft, or any other felony when inside. Unlike the crime of extortion, burglary necessitates that the defendant enters a vehicle or structure. Also, while burglary and extortion involve the intention to commit a theft, PC 459 law requires no consent. The supposed burglar simply goes into a structure intending to commit a felony or theft. However, for a conviction to occur, the defendant must have expressed the intention to commit a felony or theft before or at the time of breaking into the structure.
Burglaries inside vessels, trailers, homes, or floating homes are charged as burglaries in the first degree. First-degree burglary is always a felony. For instance, all other kinds of burglary, entering a business premise, are charged as second-degree offenses. They are wobbler crimes, meaning they can be prosecuted as misdemeanors or felonies.
If you are convicted of felony burglary, you will be punished by a state prison sentence of two, four, or six years. And if you are convicted of second-degree burglary, felony consequences will include sixteen months, two or three years in prison while misdemeanor penalties will be a sentence of up to one year in jail.
Extortion by Posing as a Kidnapper (Penal Code 210)
Under the California kidnapping statues, you kidnap someone when you move them without their consent by use of fear or force. And the offense of extortion under PC 518 involves using fear or force to make someone give you property or money or make a public official do an official deed. It can also include being a public officer and forcing someone else to give you property or money while acting in an official capacity.
PC 210 is more directly linked to extortion than it is to kidnapping. The reason for this is that the crime of extortion by posing as a kidnapper does not necessarily involve actual kidnapping. Instead, it involves a mere desire to acquire money, property, or any other valuable item.
You violate PC 210 law when you move to obtain a reward, ransom, or extort money/property to release a supposed kidnapped individual by passing yourself off as:
- The kidnapper,
- Someone who has held the supposed victim captive,
- The person that has aided & abetted the actual kidnapper
- A person that can secure the supposed victim’s release
Violating Penal Code 210 is a felony. The consequences include four, three, or two years in state prison.
Extortion by a Fake Court Order (Penal Code 526)
PC 526 is the law that makes it an offense to commit the crime of extortion through a fake court order. The offense occurs when a person presents a forged document supposedly created by a court to obtain money, valuable property, or official act from the victim. For instance, when an individual serves a fake court order to their neighbor and the order states the neighbor has to pay a fine of a certain amount to avoid going to jail, that individual will have committed extortion by a fake order. Keep in mind that unlike extortion under Penal Code 518, extortion by a fake court order involves documents that appear to be a court order.
If you violate PC 526 laws, you will be charged with a misdemeanor offense. A conviction for PC 526 violation carries up to a one year county jail time and a fine that does not go above $1,000.
Note that the document in question cannot be actually from the court. Also, every time you present the falsified document, it is a separate crime.
Hire an Extortion Criminal Defense Attorney Near Me
You shouldn’t leave your legal representation to chance when facing extortion charges. Extortion is a severe offense. Extortion, a felony, carries a prison sentence with several other long-term consequences that can prevent you from obtaining employment in the days to come. For several years, Orange County Criminal Defense Attorney Law Firm has legally represented persons facing extortion charges in Orange County.
Our lawyers boast in-depth criminal defense knowledge and the knowledge of the California legal system. They will work with you to build a solid defense that will yield the best possible outcome. We know that facing a criminal charge can be confusing for you. Our devotion to you is providing excellent criminal defense representation. Contact us at 714-740-7848 and let us prove your innocence.