Federal Crime of the Week – Extortion and Blackmail

Extortion is the gaining of property or money by almost any kind of force, including threats of violence, property damage, harm to reputation, or unfavorable government action.  It is also sometimes referred to as “blackmail,” with a few minor distinctions.  It can be charged in either state or federal court, but this post is concerned with the federal extortion statutes.

Federal statutes make many kinds of extortion or blackmail illegal. For example, it is illegal for federal officials to extort money in their official capacity (as part of their job).  18 U.S.C. § 872.  If you demand or receive something for not informing on someone that has violated federal law you have committed blackmail.  18 U.S.C. § 873.  If you make a threat with intent to extort, and your threat is mail or travels in interstate commerce – the internet qualifies – then you have violated 18 U.S.C. §§ 875–877.  There are several other statutes that make this type of behavior illegal, including the Hobbs Act, 18 U.S.C. § 1951, which prohibits racketeering in interstate commerce.  The act also prohibits robbery and extortion when these would affect interstate commerce.  If charged in federal court you will face substantial time and financial penalties, along with all of the baggage that comes with a federal conviction.  See this post and this post.

So what is the difference between extortion and blackmail?

When you commit extortion, you are forcing someone to do something, usually to give up something, by threatening them.  When you blackmail someone you are obtaining something of value under the threat to disclose something shameful or disreputable about a person.  The difference is that extortion requires an independent criminal act, and blackmail does not.

In fact, this leads to one of the more difficult concepts in criminal law – the law treats blackmail as if two rights make a wrong.  Let’s say you want a contract from a government agency, and you know the head of the agency is handling out these contracts in violation of goverment regulations.  So you threaten to expose the head of the agency unless they give you some of the contracts.  In that case, (1) you have a legal right to expose the wrongdoing, and (2) you have a legal right to go after the government contracts.  But if you exercise both of these rights together you have committed a crime!  And there is no victim!  What do you do?  You call a lawyer familiar with this area of the law; that’s what you do.

A conviction for extortion or blackmail at the state or federal level may result in an extensive term of imprisonment, fines, and a number of lasting consequences for your career.  Even unsubstantiated allegations can cause irreparable damage if they are not addressed from the beginning.  If you believe the government is looking at you for extortion, blackmail, or any other white-collar crime, call me immediately at 601-991-1099, or send me an email to clarence@guthriefirm.com.  I’m here to help.