Penal Code § 518 PC defines the crime of extortion (sometimes called blackmail) as using force or threats either 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.
The language of the code section states that:
518. (a) 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.
(b) For purposes of this chapter, “consideration” means anything of value, including sexual conduct as defined in subdivision (b) of Section 311.3, or an image of an intimate body part as defined in subparagraph (C) of paragraph (4) of subdivision (j) of Section 647.
(c) Notwithstanding subdivision (a), this section does not apply to a person under 18 years of age who has obtained consideration consisting of sexual conduct or an image of an intimate body part.
Examples of extortion
- 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 they do not vote “yes” on a certain proposal.
- receiving cash from a car owner after threatening to commit the offense of carjacking.
You can raise a legal defense to challenge extortion charges. Common defenses include you showing that:
- you did not use force or make a threat,
- you were falsely accused, and/or
- the victim did not perform the act that they consented to do.
A violation of California Penal Code Section 518 is a felony offense. This is opposed to a misdemeanor or an infraction.
The crime is punishable by:
- custody in jail or prison for up to four years, and/or
- a maximum fine of ten thousand dollars.
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. What constitutes extortion in California?
- 2. What are the best defenses to a Penal Code 518 PC charge?
- 3. What is the penalty for extortion in California?
- 4. Does this offense lead to deportation?
- 5. Can I get a conviction expunged?
- 6. Does an extortion conviction affect gun rights?
- 7. Can you sue for extortion in California?
- 8. Are there related crimes?
1. What constitutes extortion in California?
A prosecutor must prove the following to successfully convict you in an extortion case:
- you threatened to do one of the following to the alleged “victim:”
- a. commit an unlawful injury or use force against them, a third person, or their property,
- b. accuse them of a crime or accuse their family member of a crime, or
- c. expose a “secret” involving them or a family member, or connect them with some kind of crime, disgrace, or scandal,1
- when making the threat or using force, you intended to force the “victim” into consenting to give them money or property or to do an official act,
- as a result of the threat, the “victim” did consent to give you money or property or perform an official act, and
- the “victim” then actually gave you money or property or performed the official act.2
Note that extortion is a specific intent crime. This means you 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.
You can be convicted of extortion even if you do not actually injure the accuser, use force against that person, expose their secret, etc. All that matters is that you 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, you are 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 you can commit extortion. Penal Code 522 PC is the California statute that makes it a crime to commit extortion by means of obtaining a signature.7
An example is when you threaten to reveal another party’s secret unless that party signs a will leaving all their property to you.
1.4. Extortion by threatening letter – PC 523
Penal Code 523 PC is the California statute that makes it a crime 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:
- you did not use force or threats.
- you were falsely accused.
- the victim did not perform the act they consented to do.
2.1. No force or threats
You only commit extortion if you threaten another person or perform some act of force against the “victim.” This means it is always a defense to say that you did not make a threat or use force. Perhaps, for example, maybe you 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, you can always raise the defense that you were unjustly blamed.
2.3. Victim did not perform the act they consented to
You are not guilty of this crime unless the “victim” actually performs the act that they consented to do. In other words, the offense requires that the injured party must actually give up their money or property. Then you can raise the defense that the “victim” did not perform the agreed-upon act.
Note, though, that in these cases you may be guilty of attempted extortion.
3. What is the penalty for extortion in California?
Extortion is a felony offense in California. A conviction under Penal Code 518 PC 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?
You 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 they 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 of a non-citizen.
This means that extortion could cause an unfortunate immigration outcome.
5. Can I get a conviction expunged?
If you are convicted of extortion, you 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 your gun rights.
State law says that convicted felons must give up rights to:
- purchase a gun,
- own a gun, and
- possess a gun.
Since extortion is a felony, a conviction will strip you of your gun rights.
7. Can you sue for extortion in California?
Yes. A victim of extortion can file a lawsuit in civil court to recover the money they 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 they 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, they can recover:
- the value of the money, property, or services that they 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 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 to commit extortion by means of a fake court order.
An example is when you deliver a fake court order to your neighbor, and the order says they 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.
- 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. Serrano (1992) 11 Cal.App.4th 1672; People v. Beggs (1918) 178 Cal. 79; People v. Franquelin (1952) 109 Cal.App.2d 777; Isaac v. Superior Court (1978) 79 Cal.App.3d 260; People v. Lavine (1931) 115 Cal.App. 289; People v. Sales (2004) 116 Cal.App.4th 741; People v. Schmitz (1908) 7 Cal.App. 330; People v. Hopkins (1951) 105 Cal.App.2d 708; People v. Lavine (1931) 115 Cal.App. 289; People v. Norris (1985) 40 Cal.3d 51; People v. Mayfield (1997) 14 Cal.4th 668; People v. Peck (1919) 43 Cal.App. 638; People v. Kozlowski (2002) 96 Cal.App.4th 853; People v. Cadman (1881) 57 Cal. 562; People v. Baker (1978) 88 Cal.App.3d 115.
- 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. See also Isaac v. Superior Court (1978) 79 Cal.App.3d 260; People v. Umana (2006) 138 Cal.App.4th 625.
- 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.