Extortion is causing a voluntary giving of property or money as a result of threat, force, or fear. It is commonly known as Blackmail. This is an unusual type of theft because, unlike what you might think, the thing that is threatened might be perfectly legal to do. A somewhat common example of this is when someone asks for money in return for keeping a secret about someone. There is no law about keeping anyone’s secrets (although revealing such secrets may lead to an invasion of privacy lawsuit). Often, the secret is about a rich or famous person who, 1) has money to pay, and 2) has a reputation to protect. The crime of extortion is a felony with incarceration of up to 4 years, served in county jail.
Does that mean threatening a lawsuit is illegal?
No, because it’s legal to settle a lawsuit outside of court. In fact, this is what the court wants you to do. Therefore, it’s not against the law to threaten a store with a suit, for example, if they don’t give you money for an injury you have received while on their premises.
Can I threaten to turn someone in for a crime?
Yes, so long as you don’t demand money for not doing so. The difference here, is that crimes are prosecuted by the state. The personal remedy for you as the victim of the crime would be a civil matter, meaning you must sue to enforce that right. There may also be restitution for you as a victim, ordered by a criminal court. But it is still a crime to barter punishment for anyone’s criminal act for your own personal gain,whether you are a victim or not.
What if I made the demand, but never received anything?
For making the threat, you have committed attempted extortion which is a wobbler (may be charged as a misdemeanor or felony). If you work for the government, and the threat was made in your official government capacity, it’s also a misdemeanor. If you made the threat in writing, however, it’s a felony.
By way of example, I once got a call from a woman who owned an apartment building. Her adult son had gone into a tenant’s apartment, and allegedly fondled the tenant while the tenant slept. The woman had called me for legal representation of her son. The woman showed me an email the tenant had sent her, in which the tenant had demanded free rent in exchange for not calling the police. I informed the woman that her son was facing a sexual battery charge, at least, and potentially home invasion burglary, carrying a heavy state prison sentence, a strike, and mandatory sex offender registration. But I also told the woman that the tenant had committed felony extortion with the email.
When the woman asked if she herself would be guilty of extortion for threatening to turn in her tenant, I replied that she was free to do so, as long as she didn’t demand money in return as her tenant had. The woman hung up and I never heard from her again. Another satisfied customer, I suppose.
Links to Information for Anyone Charged with a Crime: