California’s extortion laws prohibit the obtaining of money, property, sexual favors, political actions, or anything else of value through the use of force, fear, or coercion, which could include someone threatening to reveal a secret, expose nude pictures, or provide evidence that someone committed a crime. While the state’s main extortion law is defined under California Penal Code 518 (PC), other laws detail how the offense may occur, with 522 (PC) covering extortion performed to obtain a signature, 523 (PC) which includes extortion using written threats, and 526 (PC) detailing crimes committed with the use of a fake court order. Attempted extortion is a distinct offense covered by California Penal Code 524 (PC). If you have been accused of any of these serious crimes, contact an extortion attorney in San Diego as soon as possible to help you fight the charges. Remember that anything you say to the police could be used against you later, even if you say it in an attempt to defend yourself.
What is the Difference Between the Crime of Extortion and Blackmail?
While most people are more familiar with blackmail than extortion, state law classifies them as the same crime. That’s not to say that blackmail and extortion are the same thing. As stated above, extortion involves using force, fear, or coercion to get someone to give you money or property or do something for you. On the other hand, blackmail involves coercing someone to do something or give something in exchange for your keeping certain information secret. While blackmail is a crime in California, it is only one type of extortion, but not all forms of extortion are considered blackmail. For example, if you threaten to show a person’s spouse pictures proving they are having an affair, it would be blackmail, while threatening to hurt someone’s spouse would not be —though both fall under 518 (PC).
Examples of Extortion and Blackmail
There are forms of extortion, all of which are crimes under the law. Some examples include threatening to:
- Destroy a prized Picasso painting if someone doesn’t give up their diamonds
- Expose someone’s nude photos if they don’t have sex with you (this is a specific kind of extortion known as sextortion)
- Share proof of a district attorney’s infidelity if she moves forward in pressing charges against an accused drug dealer
- Give police evidence that someone participated in a crime if they don’t sign over the deed for their home
- Accuse your ex of rape if they do not give you their truck
- Arrest someone with a fake court order if they do not pay you money
- Maiming someone’s daughter and threatening to hurt them more if they do not pay the ransom (Note that these cases can also include other charges such as false imprisonment, kidnapping, aggravated mayhem, torture, and aggravated battery.)
What is the Penalty for Extortion in California?
Whether it falls under 518 (PC), 522 (PC), or 523 (PC), extortion is almost always a felony in California. Penalties may include up to four years in prison and $10,000 in fines. Additionally, victims of extortion may sue to recover damages for their losses.
In some cases, such as when the offense was part of a gang crime or when the victim was an elderly individual, the offense may be considered a strike under the three strikes law.
If torture charges are brought up because the victim suffered serious bodily harm as a result of the extortion, then the defendant will face a life sentence.
A handful of extortion crimes are handled as misdemeanors, including 526 (PC) and some offenses involving the coercion of a public official to perform an official act.
Ransomware Under California Extortion Law
California Penal Code section 523 (PC) defines the crime of using ransomware as introducing a contaminant or lock into a computer or network that restricts access by those authorized to use the device or system. Once this software is introduced, the hackers responsible then demand the victim make a payment or perform some other activity in exchange for the hacker removing the ransomware.
Under the law, both those who introduce the ransomware to a computer or network, and those who get others to introduce the malware can be charged with this offense.
Attempted Extortion Penalties in California
Most attempted crimes in California carry a penalty of half of the sentence of the regular criminal offense. Attempted extortion is a rare exception, and when this offense is unsuccessful, the charge is filed under 524 (PC). This crime is a wobbler, meaning it can be either a felony or a misdemeanor. If charged as a misdemeanor, the maximum penalty is one year in jail and a $1,000 fine. If charged as a felony, the maximum penalty is three years in prison and $10,000 in fines.
Notably, extortion by threatening letter, filed under 523 (PC), is considered complete whether or not the victim actually pays or performs a service because this offense outlaws the actual writing of a threatening letter for the purposes of extortion.
Defenses to Extortion
Like all crimes, you can fight the charges if you have been accused of extortion or attempted extortion. Sometimes your best course of action is to negotiate a plea bargain to minimize the potential penalty you face. In other cases, you may want to plead innocent. A skilled attorney can evaluate which specific extortion law you have been accused of violating, the evidence against you, and other relevant information to determine which course of action is the best for your situation.
In some cases, the person being accused of the crime is actually the victim. For example, a man in an ugly divorce with his wife may claim that she threatened to accuse him of domestic violence if he didn’t agree to give her full custody of the children, but in reality, he was lying so she would lose custody. False accusations are a common defense to extortion charges.
If you have been accused of successfully blackmailing someone, you may sometimes benefit by arguing that the victim never paid the price for your extortion. Under this defense, you will still face charges, but you will face lesser penalties for attempted extortion and may even be charged with a misdemeanor rather than a felony. This defense will not work in cases where the threat was passed to the victim in a written letter because this statute prohibits writing and sending the threat, whether or not the victim pays.
Another common defense is that there is simply too little evidence to prove the charges. If the only evidence that you attempted to blackmail someone is that person’s word, it will be difficult for the prosecution to secure a conviction unless you have a history of other people making similar claims against you. Because police know this, they will often claim they have more evidence than they actually do to extract a confession from a suspect, something your blackmail defense attorney in San Diego can help protect you from.
Another strong defense can be showing that there was no threat made. If you simply notify someone that you intend to share that they are having an affair, but do not ask them to do anything to prevent you from sharing that information, you are not guilty under 518 (PC). Similarly, if you threaten to take legal action against someone who refuses to pay a debt, this is not extortion but simply exercising your legal rights. Similarly, if you have a friend with a history of breaking into homes, it is not a crime if you threaten to tell the police if your friend breaks the law. However, if you tell your friend that you will report them to the police if they do not steal something for you when they break into a home in the future, this is considered extortion.