California Penal Code 518 PC defines the crime of extortion (sometimes called blackmail) as using force or threats to compel another person to hand over money or property, or to compel a public officer to perform an official act. Extortion is a felony that carries a potential sentence of up to four years in jail or prison.
518 PC states that “extortion is the obtaining of property or other consideration from another, with his or her 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.”
- breaking into a home and taking the owner’s jewelry after threatening to break the owner’s leg.
- threatening to expose a public official’s extramarital affair if he/she does not vote “yes” on a certain proposal.
- receiving cash from a car owner after threatening to commit the offense of carjacking.
A defendant can raise a legal defense to challenge extortion charges. Common defenses include the defendant showing that:
- he/she did not use force or make a threat,
- he/she was falsely accused, and/or
- the victim did not perform the act that he/she consented to do.
The crime is punishable by:
- custody in jail or prison for up to four years, and/or
- a maximum fine of ten thousand dollars.
A judge may award a defendant with felony (or formal) probation in lieu of prison time.
Note that “attempted extortion” is a separate crime that is prosecuted under Penal Code 524 PC.
Our California criminal defense attorneys will explain the following in this article:
- 1. When is extortion a crime in California?
- 2. What are the best defenses to a Penal Code 518 PC charge?
- 3. What are the consequences of a conviction?
- 4. Does this offense lead to deportation?
- 5. Can a person get a conviction expunged?
- 6. Does an extortion conviction affect gun rights?
- 7. Can I sue someone for extortion?
- 8. Are there related crimes?
1. When is extortion a crime in California?
A prosecutor must prove the following to successfully convict a defendant in an extortion case:
- the defendant threatened to do one of the following to the alleged “victim:”
- a. commit an unlawful injury or use force against him/her, a third person, or his/her property,
- b. accuse him/her of a crime or accuse his/her family member of a crime, or
- c. expose a “secret” involving him/her or a family member, or connect them with some kind of crime, disgrace, or scandal,1
- 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 perform an official act, and
- the “victim” then actually gave the defendant money or property or performed the official act.2
Note that extortion is a specific intent crime. This means the defendant must have:
- a desire to commit the crime, and
- an intent to achieve a specific result.3
Questions often arise under this statute on the meaning of:
- threaten, and
In addition, one can also commit extortion by means of:
- obtaining a signature, and
- using a threatening letter.
An accused can be convicted of extortion even if he/she does not actually injure the accuser, use force against that person, expose his/her secret, etc. All that matters is that the defendant threatened to do so.4
Further, the threat must be the controlling reason that the other person consented. If the person or government officials consented because of some other controlling reason, the defendant is not guilty of extortion.5
Consent typically means that a person gives something away freely and willingly.
But for purposes of this statute, it means consent that is coerced. “Coerced consent” means that the “victim” gives something away:
- unwillingly, and
- as a result of wrongful force or fear.6
1.3. Extortion of signature – PC 522
California law carves out other ways in which a person can commit extortion. Penal Code 522 PC is the California statute that makes it a crime for a person to commit extortion by means of obtaining a signature.7
An example is when a defendant threatens to reveal another party’s secret unless that party signs a will leaving all his/her property to the defendant.
1.4. Extortion by threatening letter – PC 523
Penal Code 523 PC is the California statute that makes it a crime for a person to commit extortion by means of a threatening letter.8
An example is when a woman has an affair with a married man, and then sends him a letter threatening to tell “all the details” to his wife unless he pays her $10,000.
2. What are the best defenses to a Penal Code 518 PC charge?
Defense lawyers can use several legal strategies to raise a legal defense and contest a charge of extortion. These include showing that:
- the defendant did not use force or threats.
- the defendant was falsely accused.
- the victim did not perform the act he/she consented to do.
2.1. No force or threats
A person only commits extortion if he threatens another person or performs some act of force against the “victim.” This means it is always a defense for an accused to say that he did not make a threat or use force. Perhaps, for example, maybe the defendant merely asked for some money.
2.2. Falsely accused
People get falsely accused of extortion all the time. Reasons as to why “victims” raise false accusations of this offense include:
- revenge, or
- ill will.
Therefore, an accused can always raise the defense that he was unjustly blamed.
2.3. Victim did not perform the act he/she consented to
A person is not guilty of this crime unless the “victim” actually performs the act that he/she consented to do. In other words, the offense requires that the injured party must actually give up their money or property. An accused, then, can raise the defense that the “victim” did not perform the agreed-upon act.
Note, though, that in these cases the defendant may be guilty of attempted extortion.
3. What are the consequences of a conviction?
A violation of Penal Code 518 is a felony. The felony conviction is punishable by:
- custody in jail or prison for up to four years, and/or
- a maximum fine of $10,000.9
4. Does this offense lead to deportation?
A defendant may experience negative immigration consequences if convicted of this crime.
California law labels certain offenses as “crimes involving moral turpitude.” If a non-citizen commits one of these offenses, then he/she can be:
One California court has stated that extortion is a crime involving moral turpitude.10
However, the case is an older court case and it applies to the disbarment of an attorney and not the deportation on a non-citizen.
This means that extortion could cause an unfortunate immigration outcome.
5. Can a person get a conviction expunged?
A person convicted of extortion cannot get the conviction expunged.
This is because the law does not allow for the expungement of crimes for which prison time is imposed.
6. Does an extortion conviction affect gun rights?
A conviction under these laws will negatively affect a person’s gun rights.
State law says that convicted felons must give up their rights to:
- purchase a gun,
- own a gun, and
- possess a gun.
Since extortion is a felony, a conviction will strip a defendant of his/her gun rights.
7. Can I sue someone for extortion?
Yes. A victim of extortion can file a lawsuit in civil court to recover the money he/she paid to the offender of the extortion crime. This act is commonly referred to as “civil extortion.”
To prove successful in court, the victim must prove the following:
- the offender threatened the victim in order to obtain money, property, or services,
- the offender knew the threat was wrong or unlawful, and
- the victim complied with the threat or gave the offender the money, property, or services demanded of.
As to the last factor, note that people cannot sue for extortion if they did not actually pay an offender money or property because of a threat. While the party making the threat can still be prosecuted for attempted extortion, the “victim” cannot file a lawsuit because he/she never gave the offender anything of value.
In a civil lawsuit for extortion, the victim or plaintiff can use the following evidence to try and prove that extortion occurred:
- video recordings, emails, texts, or voicemails that show a threat by the offender,
- bank records showing an exchange of money, and/or
- statements from witnesses that observed the crime.
If a victim is successful in court, he/she can recover:
- the value of the money, property, or services that he/she paid to the offender, and
- punitive damages.
Note that civil extortion lawsuits are independent of criminal cases involving the offense. While the State of California files criminal charges against the offender of the extortion crime, the victim files a civil lawsuit against the offender to recover the value of any money, property, or services given to the offender in the commission of the offense.
Victims of extortion can even file a lawsuit if they never filed a police report of the crime.
8. Are there related crimes?
There are three criminal offenses related to extortion. These are:
- extortion by a fake court order – PC 526,
- robbery – PC 211, and
- burglary – PC 459
8.1. Extortion by fake court order – PC 526
Penal Code 526 PC is the California statute that makes it a crime for a person to commit extortion by means of a fake court order.
An example is when a person delivers a fake court order to his neighbor, and the order says he must pay a fine to avoid being arrested.
Note that unlike crimes under PC 518, these offenses involve documents that purport to be some order of the court.
8.2. Robbery – PC 211
California Penal Code 211 PC defines the crime of robbery as “the felonious taking of personal property in the possession of another, from his person or immediate presence, and against his will, accomplished by means of force or fear.”11
Note that, unlike robbery, extortion requires the victim to consent to a taking of money or property.
8.3. Burglary – PC 459
California Penal Code 459 PC defines burglary as the act of entering any commercial or residential structure or locked vehicle with the intent to commit:
- petty theft,
- grand theft, or
- any felony once inside.
Unlike extortion, burglary requires that the offender actually enters into a structure or vehicle.
For additional help…
For additional guidance or to discuss your case with a criminal defense attorney, we invite you to contact our law firm at the Shouse Law Group. We provide trusted legal advice and offer a free consultation. We create attorney-client relationships throughout the state of California.
Our defense lawyers represent clients throughout California, including Long Beach, Orange County, Los Angeles and Los Angeles County, San Bernardino, Pasadena, San Diego, Riverside, and Glendale.
- As to a “secret,” see People v. Bollaert (2016) 248 Cal.App.4th 699. See also the definition of fear in Penal Code 519 PC.
- CALCRIM No. 1830 – Extortion by Threat or Force. Judicial Council of California Criminal Jury Instructions (2017 edition). See also People v. Hesslink (1985) 167 Cal.App.3d 781.
- People v. Hesslink, supra.
- CALCRIM No. 1830 – Extortion by Threat or Force. See also People v. Stringer (2019) 41 Cal.App.5th 974, and, People v. Anaya (2013) 221 Cal.App.4th 252.
- People v. Goodman (1958) 159 Cal.App.2d 54.
- See same.
- California Penal Code 522 PC.
- California Penal Code 523 PC.
- California Penal Code 1170h PC.
- In re Disbarment of Coffey (1899) 123 Cal. 522.
- California Penal Code 211 PC.