extortion | Definition

Doc's CJ Glossary by Adam J. McKee
Course: Criminal Law

Extortion, a form of blackmail, refers to the criminal act of using threats or force to acquire money, property, or something else of value from another person.

In the world of crime, extortion holds a unique position. Unlike robbery, which involves an immediate act of force, extortion plays out over a longer period. It’s akin to a mental game, where the criminal uses threats and fear as weapons to get what they want.

To fully understand extortion, we need to understand its key element – the use of threats or force to obtain value. It isn’t a mere request or a business deal. Instead, it’s a predatory act where the extortionist creates a sense of fear and forces the victim into a corner.

What Constitutes a Threat?

Threats in extortion aren’t limited to physical harm. They can also involve financial or reputational damage. For example, an extortionist might threaten to leak embarrassing personal information about the victim unless they hand over money.

Threats can also extend to the victim’s family, friends, or associates. It’s a deeply manipulative strategy designed to exploit the victim’s vulnerabilities and force them into submission.

What’s Being Extorted?

The extortionist isn’t always after money. They could also be targeting property, valuable information, or any asset that holds value. What matters is that they’re using force or threats to get it.

What Makes a Threat Extortion?

The mere existence of a threat doesn’t automatically equate to extortion. For it to qualify, the threat must serve a specific purpose: to induce the victim to surrender their valuables. If the threat is general and not directed toward this end, it may not be considered extortion.

The threat also has to be immediate. A vague threat of harm in the distant future isn’t typically seen as extortion.

Is Compliance Necessary in Extortion?

Interestingly, the victim doesn’t need to comply with the extortionist’s demands for the act to qualify as extortion. The act of threatening, with the intent to extort, is itself a crime. This means that even if the victim doesn’t give in to the demands, the person making the threats can still be charged and prosecuted.

Elements of the Crime

Extortion is a serious offense, and it is treated as such in legal jurisdictions across the globe. In the United States, one of the main legal benchmarks used by many states to define their criminal laws is the Model Penal Code (MPC). The MPC offers comprehensive definitions, principles, and guidelines for various criminal behaviors, including extortion.

Under Section 223.4 of the MPC, extortion is defined as purposely obtaining property of another by threatening to inflict bodily injury on anyone or commit any other criminal offense. This legal guideline explicitly recognizes the nature of extortion as a threat-based crime, meaning that it’s not about the actual commission of harm, but the intimidation and fear induced by threats of harm, whether it’s physical, financial, or otherwise.

To consider a crime as extortion under the MPC, there needs to be a clear intent to gain property (which can be anything of value) from the victim. This intent must be accompanied by a threat. The threat doesn’t have to be carried out, and the victim doesn’t have to comply with the extortionist’s demands for it to qualify as extortion.

Furthermore, the MPC allows for a broad interpretation of what could constitute a threat. While the statute specifically mentions bodily harm or committing a crime, this is not a limiting description. A threat could involve damage to property, reputation, or anything else the victim values.

In essence, the crime of extortion is an egregious violation of an individual’s sense of safety and security. The Model Penal Code recognizes this, treating it as a serious offense. As such, any act of extortion could carry significant legal penalties, including fines and incarceration, thereby underlining the importance of maintaining vigilance and promoting justice.

[ Glossary ]

Last Modified: 05/19/2023

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