Updated January 14, 2020
Under Penal Code 518 PC, California law defines criminal extortion (also sometimes called blackmail) as using force or threats to compel another person to give you money or property, or to compel a public officer to perform an official act. Extortion is a felony that carries a penalty of up to 4 years in jail or prison.
More specifically, the offense occurs when a person does any of the following:
- uses force or threats to compel another person to give you money or other property,
- uses force or threats to compel a public officer to perform an official act, or
- if it is a public official, acts under color of official right to compel another person to give up money or other property.1
This may sound fairly complicated. And, in fact, California extortion charges can be brought in a wide variety of scenarios. Just a few examples of behavior that could be considered extortion/blackmail under California law include:
- A man armed with a knife breaks into a home and threatens to kill the home’s owner if she doesn’t open a safe that contains large amounts of cash and expensive jewelry;
- A real estate developer threatens to expose a city council member’s extramarital affair to the media if the city council member does not vote to approve a project that the developer wants to build; and
- An adult daughter with a drug problem threatens to accuse her father of molesting her and have him arrested if he does not give her money to buy drugs.2
Politicians, celebrities, and sports stars are frequent targets of extortion. For example, one well-known former basketball player and current basketball coach was involved in a prominent California extortion case…in which a former stripper threatened to release nude photos of the married athlete unless he paid her thousands of dollars.3
That said, anyone can be a victim of — or find themselves accused of — the crime of blackmail.
Extortion in most cases is a California felony. The penalties are two (2), three (3) or four (4) years in county jail, and/or a ten thousand dollar ($10,000) fine.4
Victims who pay the money or property extorted can also bring a lawsuit to recover damages for “civil extortion” in California.
Being falsely accused of (and wrongly arrested for) blackmail can be a nightmare. But experienced California extortion defense attorneys have seen this kind of thing before and know how to fight the charges.
Potential legal defenses against a California extortion/blackmail charge include:
- You did not actually coerce the alleged victim into consenting to hand over property,
- You were falsely accused, and
- There is insufficient evidence to support a conviction.
In an effort to help you better understand the specifics of California extortion charges — and how to fight them — our California criminal defense attorneys5 will address the following:
- 1. What is the legal definition of “extortion” in California?
- 2. What are the penalties for a Penal Code 518 conviction?
- 3. What are the best defenses to this crime
- 4. What crimes are related to extortion?
If, after reading this article, you have additional questions, we invite you to contact us at Shouse Law Group.
The legal definition of California extortion consists of four “elements of the crime.” These are facts that the prosecutor must be able to prove in order for you to be guilty of this crime.
The elements of California extortion are:
- The defendant threatened to do one of the following to the alleged “victim”:
- a. Unlawfully injure or use force against him/her, a third party, or his/her property,
- b. Accuse him/her or a relative or family member of a crime, OR
- c. Expose a secret involving him/her or a family member, or connect any of them with some kind of crime, disgrace, or scandal;
- When making the threat or using force, the defendant intended to force the “victim” into consenting to give him/her money or property or to do an official act;
- As a result of the threat, the “victim” did consent to give the defendant money or property or do an official act; AND
- The “victim” then actually did give the defendant money or property or perform the official act.6
Let’s flesh out some of the words and phrases in these elements to gain a better understanding of exactly what this legal definition of extortion means.
You can be convicted of extortion even if you don’t actually injure or use force against your victim, expose his/her secret, etc. All that matters is that you threaten to do so.7
In order for a threat to be the basis of extortion charges, it is not necessary for you to
- demand a specific sum of money,8 or
- use specific “threatening words” or other obvious language (the threats may be conveyed subtly and/or implied by the circumstances).9
What’s interesting about the crime of Penal Code 518 PC extortion / blackmail is that it may take place even if:
- the act you are threatening to commit is perfectly legal, or
- you believe you have a right to the money or property that you are trying to obtain through extortion (as would be the case if, for example, the extortion victim were someone who owed you money).10
Example: Pete discovers that his neighbor Rachel is growing marijuana on her property. He threatens to call the police unless Rachel gives him some marijuana for free every month.
What Pete is threatening to do-report Rachel’s activities to the police-is not illegal. But his actions may still be extortion, because he is using a threat to try to persuade her to do something.
In California extortion law, the term “injury” means an “unlawful” injury.11
In other words, it is not extortion or blackmail if you threaten to do something you had a specific legal right to do. You commit the crime of extortion only if you threaten to do something to someone else or their property that you have no legal right to do.
Example: Tom threatens to beat Arnold severely if Arnold does not pay Tom some money he owes him. Because Tom does not have the legal right to beat Tom, he has threatened to injure Tom for purposes of the California law against extortion.
Example: Melissa wants to build an addition onto her house . . . but, under her homeowners’ association rules, she needs all her neighbors to consent before she can do so. Her neighbor Scott tells her he will only give her permission if she pays him $1000.
Scott has arguably threatened to injure Melissa’s property if she does not give him money. But he has the legal right to refuse permission for her to build the addition. So if he refuses permission, he will not be inflicting an unlawful injury on her property. Thus, Scott is not committing the crime of extortion.
Expose a “secret”
California extortion law defines a secret as a fact that:
- is unknown to the general public or to someone who might be interested in knowing it, and
- would harm the alleged “victim’s” reputation or other interest so greatly that s/he would be likely to give up money or property or do an official act in order to prevent the fact from being revealed.12
Example:Jim, the mayor of a small city, claims to have graduated from a prestigious university. But Carol, a resident of the city, knows that, although Jim attended the university, he never actually graduated. Carol tells Jim that she will let the media know this unless Jim arranges for a city job for her nephew.
Jim’s secret is not known to the general public, and it would harm his reputation greatly if it were revealed. Carol’s behavior meets the definition of extortion.
An “official act” is something that a public officer-a government official-does in his/her official capacity, using his/her authority as a public officer.13
Example: Stanley is a congressman about to participate in a vote on a major environmental law. Rita is a member of a radical environmental group that is advocating for the law to be passed. She contacts Stanley and tells him that her group will tell the media about an extramarital affair he’s been having if he doesn’t vote for the law.
Since congressmen regularly vote on laws in their official capacity, Stanley would be performing an “official act” by voting for the law. Therefore, Rita is attempting to commit extortion.
The word “consent” has a special meaning in California extortion/blackmail law. It usually refers to consent that is given freely and willingly. But for purposes of California’s extortion statute, it means consent that is coerced…that is, given unwillingly, as a result of wrongful force or fear.14
The threat made by the defendant — and the force or fear that it produced — must be the main reason why the other person consented to give up their money or property, or perform an official act.15
The act must be performed
One more very important element of the California offense of extortion is that the “victim” must actually perform the act that they consented to do. In other words, they must actually give up their money or property, or perform an official act.16 If they do not do so, the crime of extortion has not taken place.
However, even if the victim does not actually perform the act, you may still be charged with attempted extortion, which carries less severe penalties. We will discuss the penalties for attempted blackmail in Section 2 below.
The legal definition of extortion by force or fear set forth above covers most cases of extortion in California. However, there are two other forms of California extortion that have slightly different definitions. These are:
- extortion by a threatening letter,17 and
- extortion of a signature.18
The legal definition of extortion by threatening letter in California is as follows:
- The defendant sent or delivered a threatening letter or other writing to another person;
- In the letter, the defendant threatened to do any of the following:
- a. Unlawfully injure the other person, a third party, or their property,
- b. Accuse the other person, or that person’s relative or family member, of a crime, OR
- c. Expose a secret about the other person or that person’s relative or family member, or connect any of them with a crime or disgraceful matter; AND
- When sending or delivering the letter, the defendant intended to use this threat to obtain money, property, or an official act from the other person.19
As you can see, extortion by threatening letter is pretty much the same as extortion by force or fear, except for two key differences:
- Extortion by threatening letter must involve putting the threat into a letter or other writing, and
- For extortion by a threatening letter, the alleged “victim” does not actually need to hand over their money or property or commit an official act…or even consent to do so.
Example: Jessica meets men in online chat rooms and has brief sexual relationships with them. She then sends them letters threatening to accuse them of sexual assault if they do not send her money. None of the men responds to the letters or sends her money…but Jessica has still committed the crime of extortion by threatening letter.20
The California crime of extortion/blackmail of signature occurs when all of the following are true:
- The defendant threatens to do any of these things:
- a. Unlawfully injure another person, a third party, or their property,
- b. Accuse the other person, or that person’s relative or family member, of a crime, OR
- c. Expose a secret about the other person or that person’s relative or family member, or connect any of them with a crime or disgraceful matter;
- The defendant intends to use that threat to obtain the other person’s signature on a document or check that would transfer property or create a debt or right of legal action; AND
- As a result of the threat, the other person actually signs the document or check.
With extortion by signature . . . as with extortion by threatening letter . . . it doesn’t matter whether the defendant ever actually obtained money or property from the alleged “victim.” All that matters is that the victim signed a document.21
Example: Oliver knows that his rich uncle Bob fathered a child out of wedlock and has been supporting that child without his family’s knowledge. Oliver threatens to reveal that secret to Bob’s family unless Bob signs a will leaving all his property to Oliver.
Bob later tears up that will and drafts a new one, so when he dies Oliver gets nothing. But Oliver is still guilty of extortion by signature, because he did manage to get Bob’s signature on a document that would have transferred property.
The crime of extortion/blackmail is a felony.22 The potential penalties include:
- Two (2), three (3) or four (4) years in county jail,
- A fine of up to ten thousand dollars ($10,000), and/or
- Formal (“felony”) probation.23
If the person you allegedly blackmail is a “dependent person” (that is, someone whose mental and/or physical impairment restricts daily activities) or a “senior,” that will be considered an aggravating factor when the judge imposes your sentence.24
In addition, extortion can count as a “strike” offense under California’s Three Strikes law . . . but only if it is committed in connection with gang activity and California’s criminal street gang sentencing enhancement (Penal Code 186.22 PC) applies.25
In order for the gang enhancement to apply, you must commit the crime of extortion for the benefit of, at the direction of, or in association with a criminal street gang…with the specific intent to promote or assist the gang’s criminal activities.26
Penalties for attempted extortion
If you only attempt to commit extortion — if, for example, the alleged “victim” never consents to your request or never hands over money or property — then you can still be convicted of attempted extortion.
Misdemeanor penalties for attempted extortion are:
- Up to one (1) year in county jail,
- A fine of up to one thousand dollars ($1,000), and/or
- Misdemeanor (summary) probation.28.
Felony penalties for attempted extortion could include:
- Sixteen (16) months, two (2) years or three (3) years in county jail,
- A fine of up to ten thousand dollars ($10,000), and/or
- Formal (felony) probation.
These penalties make California extortion different from most attempted crimes in California law…which normally are punishable by half of the jail or prison time and/or half of the maximum fine of the completed crime.29
California extortion statutes also set out a few forms of extortion that are punished as misdemeanors . . . not felonies.
Specifically, you are guilty of misdemeanor extortion if:
- you deliver, or have another person deliver, a false document that either claims to be an official court document or is designed to convince the targeted individual that it is an official court document, and
- you intend to obtain property or anything of value from that person based on that document.30
You are also guilty of misdemeanor extortion if you publish, distribute, offer to sell, or take any part in the making of such a document.31
These misdemeanor blackmail offenses are punishable by:
- up to six (6) months in county jail, and/or
- a fine of up to one thousand dollars ($1,000).32
Depending on the circumstances of your specific case, there are a number of criminal defenses that a skilled California extortion attorney could present on your behalf. The following may be particularly effective.
As we noted above, in order for you to be guilty of blackmail in California, your threat must be the controlling reason — the main reason — why the other person consented to giving you his/her property or to performing an official act.
If you can prove that something other than your threat is the main reason why the alleged victim consented, you are not criminally liable for a California extortion charge.33
Example: Trevor is out of work and desperate for money. He has a friend Mike, who once confided in Trevor about an extramarital affair. Trevor goes to Mike and says that he will tell Mike’s wife about the affair if Mike doesn’t lend him money. Mike agrees to make the loan to Trevor.
But what Trevor doesn’t know is that Mike told his wife about the affair long ago. He makes the loan to Trevor because he feels sorry for him, not because of the threat. So Trevor is not guilty of extortion.
False accusations lead to wrongful arrests and unlawful charges all too often.
The accuser is often motivated by anger, jealousy, or revenge and may initiate false criminal charges as a way of “getting back” at you. An experienced extortion defense lawyer knows how to uncover these (and any other types) of false allegations . . . and how to convince the prosecutor, judge, and/or jury that you are, in fact, innocent of the charges.
If, for example, you and your wife are in the middle of heated divorce proceedings, she may accuse you of Penal Code 518 extortion by alleging that you threatened to hurt her if she didn’t give you the car.
According to San Jose criminal defense attorney Neil Shouse34 :
“Many people are surprised to learn how many extortion cases involve so-called ‘victims’ who know the defendants and have a long personal or business history with them. False accusations of extortion are particularly common in situations where an existing relationship has gone sour-such as a divorce or a break-up of a business partnership.”
Prosecutors are quick to file extortion charges, many times without sufficient evidence. In many cases, the allegations come down to the testimony of the alleged “victim”…who may not be entirely reliable.
There are a variety of ways that the defense of insufficient evidence could apply to a California extortion case. For example, you may be able to prove that you didn’t threaten the other person, and that there was just a misunderstanding. Or you may be able to prove that the person from whom you allegedly extorted property wasn’t placed in actual fear.
Several other California crimes are related to the crime of extortion/blackmail . . . because they have similar “elements of the crime,” or because they are frequently charged in connection with blackmail charges. The following is a brief description of some of the most common.
The California crime of bribery is also an illegal attempt to obtain money, property, or acts from someone else. Although it resembles extortion/blackmail, it is a separate and distinct offense.35
You may be guilty of bribery if you either
- give or offer to give, or
money or property in exchange for a promised act by someone in authority.36
There are different bribery statutes in California that cover, for example,
- bribery by or of executive officers or public employees,37
- bribery by or of judges and jurors,38 and
- bribery in a business context (under California commercial bribery law).39
The major differences between the California offenses of extortion and bribery are:
- There is no force or fear involved in bribery, and
- With bribery, you are guilty of the crime the minute the offer to bribe someone is made, or an offer of a bribe is accepted…whereas with extortion, the crime is not complete until the victim does what was requested.40
Example: Leah is involved in a commercial lawsuit and would like the judge to rule her way on a key motion. If she offers the judge $50,000 to rule her way, then she is guilty of bribery…even if he declines her offer.
BUT if she threatens to have friends of hers burn down his house if he does not rule her way, then she is guilty of extortion…but only if he actually takes the threat seriously and rules for her.
A Penal Code 211 PC California robbery takes place when you take property from another person, against that person’s will, by using force or fear.41
Extortion is often confused with robbery. The major difference between the two is that:
- with Penal Code 518 PC extortion, the defendant may use force or fear to cause the victim to consent to give up money or property,42 . . . BUT
- in a robbery, the victim never actually consents to giving up their money or property.43
Robbery is a felony and carries a potential California state prison sentence of anywhere from two (2) to nine (9) years.44
Penal Code 215 PC, California’s carjacking law, defines carjacking as taking a car from another person’s immediate possession through force or fear.45
As with robbery, the taking is against the person’s will . . . and, as a result, carjacking is a separate crime from extortion.46
Carjacking is a felony. It carries a state prison sentence of three (3), five (5), or nine (9) years.47
Penal Code 459 PC, California’s burglary law, defines burglary as entering a structure with the intent to commit theft or any felony . . . such as extortion . . . once inside.48
If . . . for example . . . you enter a business intending to blackmail or extort money from the owner, this is the crime of burglary. And if in fact you do extort money from someone inside the business, you could be charged with both Penal Code 459 PC burglary and Penal Code 518 PC extortion.
Burglary of any inhabited structure-any place where people are living-is a felony . . . while burglary of any other sort of structure (like a business) is a wobbler.49
California kidnapping laws make it a crime to use force or fear to take a person and move him/her a substantial distance.50
And one California kidnapping statute, Penal Code 210 PC, makes it a crime to kidnap another person (or to pose as a kidnapper) for the purpose of collecting a ransom or reward, or extorting someone else’s money or property.51
This crime — extortion in connection with a kidnapping — is a felony and carries a sentence of two (2), three (3), or four (4) years in prison.52
So if you commit extortion, or attempted extortion, in the context of a kidnapping for ransom…you will likely be charged under Penal Code 210 PC, a California kidnapping law, rather than under Penal Code 518 PC.
Call Us for Help…
If you or loved one is charged with Penal Code 518 PC extortion and you are looking to hire an attorney for representation, we invite you to contact us at Shouse Law Group. We can provide a free consultation in office or by phone. We have local offices in Los Angeles, the San Fernando Valley, Pasadena, Long Beach, Orange County, Ventura, San Bernardino, Rancho Cucamonga, Riverside, San Diego, Sacramento, Oakland, San Francisco, San Jose and throughout California.
- Penal Code 518 PC -- Definition (“Extortion is the obtaining of property from another, with his consent, or the obtaining of an official act of a public officer, induced by a wrongful use of force or fear, or under color of official right.”)
- See same.See also California Penal Code 519 PC -- Fear used to extort; threats inducing. (“Fear, such as will constitute extortion, may be induced by a threat, either: 1. To do an unlawful injury to the person or property of the individual threatened or of a third person; or, 2. To accuse the individual threatened, or any relative of his, or member of his family, of any crime; or, 3. To expose, or to impute to him or them any deformity, disgrace or crime; or, 4. To expose any secret affecting him or them.”)
- Woman, man charged in Mark Jackson extortion case, San Francisco Chronicle, June 29, 2012.
- Penal Code 520 PC -- Punishment. (“Every person who extorts any money or other property from another, under circumstances not amounting to robbery or carjacking, by means of force, or any threat, such as is mentioned in Section 519, shall be punished by imprisonment pursuant to subdivision (h) of Section 1170 for two, three or four years.”)See also Penal Code 672 PC -- Offenses for which no fine prescribed; fine authorized in addition to imprisonment. (“Upon a conviction for any crime punishable by imprisonment in any jail or prison, in relation to which no fine is herein prescribed, the court may impose a fine on the offender not exceeding one thousand dollars ($1,000) in cases of misdemeanors or ten thousand dollars ($10,000) in cases of felonies, in addition to the imprisonment prescribed.”)
- Our Los Angeles criminal defense attorneys have local criminal law offices in Beverly Hills, Burbank, Glendale, Lancaster, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Pasadena, Pomona, Torrance, Van Nuys, West Covina, and Whittier.
- Judicial Council of California Criminal Jury Instructions (“CALCRIM”) 1830 -- Extortion by Threat or Force.
- See same.
- People v. Hesslink, (1985) 167 Cal.App.3d 781, 787. (“Citing a long list of cases in which the accused demanded from the victim a specific sum of money, defendant points out that he did not and argues that evidence of a request or demand for a specific sum is required to support a conviction for extortion. We do not agree. [California] Penal Code section 518 which defines the crime of extortion [or blackmail] contains no such requirement.”)
- People v. Massengale, (1968) 261 Cal.App.2d 758, 765. (“No precise words are necessary to convey a threat [for purposes of the California crime of blackmail/extortion]. Conduct takes its legal color and quality more or less from the circumstances surrounding it.”).
- Flatley v. Mauro, (2006) 39 Cal.4th 299, 326. (“[For purposes of California extortion law] “[i]t is immaterial that the money which petitioner sought to obtain through threats may have been justly due him”]; Gomez v. Garcia (9th Cir.1996) 81 F.3d 95, 97 [“The law of extortion (or blackmail) in California was established in 1918 that belief that the victim owes a debt is not a defense to the crime of extortion”].) Moreover, threats to do the acts that constitute extortion under Penal Code section 519 are extortionate whether or not the victim committed the crime or indiscretion upon which the threat is based and whether or not the person making the threat could have reported the victim to the authorities or arrested the victim.”)
- CALCRIM 1830, Extortion by Threat or Force. (“[Threatening to do something that a person has a legal right to do is not a threat to commit an unlawful injury.]”)See also People v. Schmitz, (1908) 7 Cal.App.330, 336. (“The evidence is insufficient to justify the verdict, there being no proof of any threat to do an unlawful injury to the property of the restaurant-keepers. The indictment is insufficient, because it shows no threat by the defendants to do an unlawful injury to property.”)
- CALCRIM 1830, Extortion by Threat or Force. (“A secret is a fact that: 1. Is unknown to the general public or to someone who might be interested in knowing the fact; AND 2. Harms the threatened person’s reputation or other interest so greatly that he or she would be likely to (give the defendant money[or property]/[or] do an official act) to prevent the fact from being revealed.]”)
- See same (“[An official act is an act that a person does in his or her official capacity, using the authority of his or her public office.]”)
- See same (“The term consent has a special meaning here. Consent for extortion can be coerced or unwilling, as long as it is given as a result of the wrongful use of force or fear.”)
- See same (“The (threat/use of force) must be the controlling reason that the other person consented. If the person consented because of some other controlling reason, the defendant is not guilty of extortion.”)
- CALCRIM 1830, Extortion by Threat or Force, endnote 6, above.
- Penal Code 523 PC -- Threatening letters; intent; punishment.
- Penal Code 522 PC -- Signature; obtaining by means of threats; punishment.
- CALCRIM 1831 -- Extortion by Threatening Letter.
- Based on People v. Umana, (2006) 138 Cal.App.4th 625.
- See CALCRIM 1831 -- Extortion by Threatening Letter, endnote 19, above.
- Penal Code 520 PC -- Punishment, endnote 4, above.
- See same.
- Penal Code 525 PC --
- Penal Code 667.5(c) PC -- Definition of a “violent felony.” (“(c) For the purpose of this section, “violent felony” shall mean any of the following: . . . (19) Extortion, as defined in Section 518, which would constitute a felony violation of Section 186.22 of the Penal Code.”)
- Penal Code 186.22 PC -- Participation in criminal street gang; penalty
- Penal Code 524 PC -- Attempts; punishment
- See same.See also Penal Code 672 PC -- Offenses for which no fine prescribed; fine authorized in addition to imprisonment.
- Penal Code 664 PC -- Attempts; punishment
- Penal Code 526 PC -- Use of documents resembling court order or process [form of extortion]; intent; separate offense for each delivery.
- Penal Code 527 PC -- Publication and sale of documents resembling court order or process
- Penal Code 19 PC -- Punishment for misdemeanor
- CALCRIM 1830, Extortion by Threat or Force, endnote 15, above.
- San Jose criminal defense attorney Neil Shouse is the Managing Attorney of Shouse Law Group. He is a former Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney, where he worked on cases ranging from DUIs and drug charges to complex, high profile murder, theft, and extortion cases . . . and had an astounding 96% success rate in felony jury trials. Mr. Shouse frequently appears as a guest legal commentator on national television
- People v. Powell, (1920) 50 Cal.App. 436, 440. (“That extortion and bribery are two separate and distinct offenses under California law is, we think, beyond dispute.”)
- Penal Code 7 PC -- Definition
- Penal Code 67 PC -- Bribery of executive officer or public officialSee also Penal Code 68 PC -- Taking of bribes by an executive officer or public official.
- Penal Code 92 PC -- Bribery of judicial officers and jurorsSee also Penal Code 93 PC -- Taking of bribes by judicial officers and jurors.
- Penal Code 641.3 PC -- Commercial bribery
- See, e.g., same.
- Penal Code 211 PC -- Definition of Robbery
- CALCRIM 1830, Extortion by Threat or Fear, endnote 6, above.
- Penal Code 211 PC
- Penal Code 213 PC
- Penal Code 215 PC -- Carjacking
- See Penal Code 520 PC -- Punishment
- Penal Code 215 PC
- Penal Code 459 PC -- Burglary
- Penal Code 461 PC -- Punishment for burglary
- Penal Code 207 PC -- Kidnapping defined
- Penal Code 210 PC -- Extortion by posing as kidnapper or by claiming ability to obtain release of victim; punishment; exception.
- See same.