Most of us have seen classic “blackmail” scenarios in the movies…for example, obtaining compromising photos depicting someone's infidelity and then threatening to reveal them to the person's spouse unless he pays up.
Blackmail as such is prohibited by Penal Code 518: California extortion law. Specifically, Penal Code 518 makes it illegal to use force or threats to compel someone to give you money or other property. This includes threats to accuse the targeted person of a crime, to reveal a secret about him or his family, or to expose him to embarrassment or disgrace.
A person commits blackmail under California extortion law even if he had every right to carry out the threat. For instance, suppose Sally works at Starbucks and notices a coworker stealing money from the cash register. She threatens to report this unless the coworker gives her a cut.
Sally certainly has a right to report her coworker's misconduct…and possibly even a moral and job duty to do so. But it's a crime to take advantage of the situation by trying to extort money from the culprit. Blackmail subjects her to up to four years of California state prison.
That said, very few California extortion cases are totally cut and dry. People often get wrongfully accused and the facts and evidence are many times quite ambiguous. If you've been accused of blackmail or extortion, seek the help of a criminal defense attorney as quickly as possible. (Refer to our article, "Sincerity is not bribery in California.")