Penal Code 523 PC - Extortion by Threatening Letter

Penal Code 523 PC is the California statute that makes it a crime for a person to commit extortion, or blackmail, by means of a threatening letter.

In particular, the statute states:

“(a) Every person who, with intent to extort property or other consideration from another, sends or delivers to any person any letter or other writing, whether subscribed or not, expressing or implying, or adapted to imply, any threat such as is specified in Section 519 is punishable in the same manner as if such property or other consideration were actually obtained by means of such threat.”

Note that “extortion,” per Penal Code 518, is the act of obtaining something of value through force or threats.

Examples of illegal acts under this statute are:

  • Melissa has a brief affair with a married man and then sends him a letter threatening to tell his wife if he doesn't pay her $10,000.
  • Monique sends her ex-boyfriend a threatening letter which says she'll charge him with rape if he doesn't send her money.
  • Jose delivered a letter to his neighbor which said Jose would physically harm him if he didn't put up a fence on his property.

Defenses

Luckily, there are several legal defenses that a defendant can raise. These include showing that:

  • the defendant made no threat,
  • there was no letter, and/or
  • the defendant was arrested after a coerced confession.

Penalties

A violation of this section is charged as a felony (as opposed to an infraction or a California misdemeanor). The crime is punishable by:

  • imprisonment in a county jail for up to four years, and/or
  • a maximum fine of $10,000.

Note that in lieu of jail time, a judge may award a defendant with felony (or formal) probation.

Our California criminal defense attorneys will highlight the following in this article:

young lady reading threatening letter
Penal Code 523 PC is the California statute that makes it a crime for a person to commit extortion, or blackmail, by means of a threatening letter

1. What is the legal definition of extortion by threatening letter under Penal Code 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.

In particular, the crime occurs when all of the following are true:

  1. the defendant sent or delivered a threatening letter or other writing to another person;
  2. 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; AND

  1. 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.1

Please note that that for a crime to take place under PC 523, it doesn't matter whether the defendant ever actually obtained money or property from the alleged "victim." All that matters is that the accused sent a “threatening” letter.

Note also that the determination as to whether a letter is “threatening” is based upon all of the facts of a case. A letter can still be threatening even if there is no threat apparent from the face of the letter.2

2. Are there legal defenses to PC 523 violations?

A person can try to challenge a PC 523 accusation by raising a legal defense. A good defense may work to reduce or even dismiss a charge.

Three common defenses to Penal Code 523 charges include:

  1. no threat
  2. no letter, and/or
  3. coerced confession.

2.1. No threat

Please recall that a defendant can only be convicted of a PC 523 charge if he “threatened” another person - with either an injury, an accusation, or an exposure of some type. This means it is always a defense for an accused to show that he made no threat.

2.2 No letter

Please also recall that a person can only be guilty of extortion by threatening letter if the party actually sent or delivered a letter. It is a valid legal defense, therefore, for the defendant to show that, even though he may have threatened another person, he did not do so via a letter.

2.3. Coerced confession

California law states that police may not use overbearing measures to coerce a confession.

If a party can show that the police coerced him into a confession, then:

  1. the judge may exclude the confession from evidence; or,
  2. the case could get dropped altogether if the party got pressured into confessing to a crime he didn't commit.
man behind bars
A violation of this law can result in a fine and/or jail time

3. Penalties, punishment, and sentencing

A violation of Penal Code 523 is charged as a felony. The crime is punishable by:

  • imprisonment in a county jail for two, three, or four years, and/or
  • a maximum fine of $10,000.3

Note that in lieu of jail time, a judge may award a defendant with felony (or formal) probation.

4. Related offenses

There are three laws related to extortion by threatening letter. These are:

  1. extortion of signature – PC 522,
  2. extortion by fake court order – PC 526, and
  3. bribery.

4.1. Extortion of signature – PC 522

Penal Code 522 PC is the California statute that makes it a crime for a person to commit extortion, or blackmail, by means of obtaining a signature.

A violation of Penal Code 522 is charged as a felony. The crime is punishable by:

  • imprisonment in a county jail for two, three, or four years, and/or
  • a maximum fine of $10,000.4

4.2. Extortion by fake court order – PC 526

Penal Code 526 is the California statute that makes it a crime for a person to commit extortion by means of a fake court order.

A violation of PC 526 is charged as a misdemeanor. The crime is punishable by:

  • imprisonment in the county jail for up to six months, and/or
  • a fine of up to $1,000.5

4.3. Bribery

Bribery is a crime in California. The offense is defined as an effort to corruptly influence, by way of money or gift, a public official in the course of that official's work.

California has several bribery laws, including:

Except in certain situations, bribery is a felony. If convicted, a defendant can be sentenced to California state prison for between two and four years.

Have you been accused extortion by threatening letter in California? Call us for help…

california extortion defense attorneys
Call us for help at (855) LAW-FIRM

If you or someone you know has been accused of a crime, per Penal Code 523, we invite you to contact us for a free consultation. We can be reached 24/7 at 855-LawFirm.


Legal References:

  1. California Penal Code 523 PC. This code section states: “(a) Every person who, with intent to extort property or other consideration from another, sends or delivers to any person any letter or other writing, whether subscribed or not, expressing or implying, or adapted to imply, any threat such as is specified in Section 519 is punishable in the same manner as if such property or other consideration were actually obtained by means of such threat.” See also CALCRIM 1831 - Extortion by Threatening Letter.

  2. People v. Fox (1958), 157 Cal. App. 2d 426.

  3. California Penal Code 520 PC.

  4. California Penal Code 520 PC.

  5. California Penal Code 19 PC.

Free attorney consultations...

The attorneys at Shouse Law Group bring more than 100 years collective experience fighting for individuals. We're ready to fight for you. Call us 24 hours a day, 365 days a year at 855-LAW-FIRM for a free case evaluation.

Regain peace of mind...

Shouse Law Defense Group has multiple locations throughout California. Click Office Locations to find out which office is right for you.

Office Locations

Shouse Law Group has multiple locations all across California, Nevada, and Colorado. Click Office Locations to find out which office is right for you.

Call us 24/7 (855) 396-0370