Penal Code 522 PC - Obtaining a Signature by Extortion

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.

In particular, the statute states:

“Every person who, by any extortionate means, obtains from another his signature to any paper or instrument, whereby, if such signature were freely given, any property would be transferred, or any debt, demand, charge, or right of action created, is punishable in the same manner as if the actual delivery of such debt, demand, charge, or right of action were obtained.”

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:

  • Oliver threatens to reveal a secret about Bob's family unless Bob signs a will leaving all his property to Oliver.
  • Kelly threatens to harm Monique if she doesn't sign a check to Kelly for $5,000.
  • Dannell tells his ex-girlfriend he will accuse her of a crime if she doesn't sign a document that transfers real property to him.

Defenses

Luckily, there are several legal defenses that a defendant can raise if accused under PC 522. These include showing that:

  • the defendant made no threat,
  • there was no signature, and/or
  • there was no probable cause to arrest the defendant.

Penalties

A violation of Penal Code 522 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:

person signing contract
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

1. What is the legal definition of extortion of signature under Penal Code 522?

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.

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

  1. 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,

  1. 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,
  2. as a result of the threat, the other person actually signs the document or check.1

Please note that that for a crime to take place under PC 522, 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.2

2. Are there legal defenses to PC 522 violations?

A person can try to challenge a PC 522 accusation by raising a legal defense. A good defense may work to reduce or even dismiss a charge.

Three common defenses to Penal Code 522 charges include:

  1. no threat
  2. no signature, and/or
  3. no probable cause.

2.1. No threat

Please recall that a defendant can only be convicted of a PC 522 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 signature

Please also recall that a person can only be guilty of extortion of signature if a party actually signed a document. It is a valid legal defense, therefore, for the defendant to show that, even though he may have threatened another person, that person did not sign anything.

2.3. No probable cause

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution says that police must have probable cause before they can detain or arrest a suspect of a crime.

If a person was stopped or arrested for violating PC 522, and there was no probable cause, then any evidence obtained following the improper stop/arrest could get excluded from the case. This exclusion could result in the dismissal or reduction in charges.

“Probable cause” essentially means that there is a reasonable belief that someone committed a crime (based on all of the circumstances).

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 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 $10,000.3

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 of signature. These are:

  1. extortion by threatening letter – PC 523,
  2. extortion by a fake court order – PC 526, and
  3. robbery – PC 211.

4.1. 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, or blackmail, by means of a threatening letter.

This crime is committed if:

  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.4

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 $10,000.5

4.2. Extortion by a 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.

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 $1,000.6

4.3. Robbery – PC 211

Penal Code 211 is the California statute that makes robbery a crime.

Per PC 211, robbery takes place when a person takes property from another person, against that person's will, by using force or fear.7

Robbery is a felony and carries a potential California state prison sentence of anywhere from two to nine years.8

Were you accused of extortion of signature in California? Call us for help…

extortion legal defense
Call us at (855) LAW-FIRM

If you or someone you know has been accused of a crime, per California Penal Code 522, 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 522 PC. This code section states: “Every person who, by any extortionate means, obtains from another his signature to any paper or instrument, whereby, if such signature were freely given, any property would be transferred, or any debt, demand, charge, or right of action created, is punishable in the same manner as if the actual delivery of such debt, demand, charge, or right of action were obtained.” See also Penal Code 522 PC - [Blackmail by] Signature.

  2. CALCRIM 1831 - Extortion by Threatening Letter. See also People v. Peppercorn (1939), 34 Cal. App. 2d 603.

  3. California Penal Code 520 PC.

  4. CALCRIM 1831 - Extortion by Threatening Letter

  5. California Penal Code 520 PC.

  6. California Penal Code 19 PC.

  7. California Penal Code 211 PC.

  8. California Penal Code 213 PC.

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