Extortion is a crime where you threaten to expose something about someone to force them to behave a certain way or to try and obtain something of value from them. Also called blackmail, extortion is a felony at the federal level and in all states. The crime falls under federal jurisdiction in certain circumstances, particularly when you use any means of wireless or interstate communication to commit the offense.
A conviction of federal extortion can bring harsh penalties that include prison time and fines, along with other serious repercussions to your reputation and future. As such, you need to consult with an experienced federal criminal defense attorney if you have been arrested or are being investigated for extortion at the federal level.
Federal Extortion Explained
Federal law defines extortion as demanding money or something else of value from someone in exchange for not reporting something or keeping something secret about the individual. Most often, the information you threaten to use is either embarrassing for the person, such as you know they had an extra-marital affair, or you know they were involved in an activity that was illegal or unethical.
However, for the crime to fall under federal jurisdiction, the following must apply:
- You used any tools of interstate or wireless communications or interstate or foreign commerce to commit the offense
- The crime crossed state lines or international boundaries
- It involved a federal law, i.e., the person you are extorting allegedly broke federal law
- It had a significant federal interest
The law also covers using the Postal Service to knowingly carry out the crime, and that includes using a foreign mail service for mail coming into or going out of the U.S.
Federal jurisdiction also applies when you commit extortion against an officer or employee of the federal government. Furthermore, the government lists several extortion-related crimes that can be prosecuted at the federal level. They include:
- Threats against the President, either sitting or president-elect, as well as the Vice-President and other successors
- Extortion by officers or employees of the United States
- Kickbacks from public works employees
- Interstate communications
- Mailing threatening communications, both domestically and internationally
- Threats against foreign officials, guests, or protected people
- Threats against former Presidents
- Receiving proceeds of extortion
Additionally, it is a crime to engage in blackmail as a so-called “protection racket.” For instance, members of criminal street gangs may demand protection money from businesses in their neighborhoods to prevent gang members from robbing or damaging the establishment.
Social Media and Extortion
The proliferation of social media has opened new avenues for would-be extortionists. Sites like Twitter and Facebook make it very easy for someone to post pictures, comments, and other information about someone else that they may not want to be shown to the public.
While simply posting a nude picture of someone or publishing other embarrassing information online may not be a crime itself (certain exceptions exist), it becomes a crime when someone threatens to post compromising information about someone else unless that person pays them money or provides something of value.
In fact, certain websites exist for the sole purpose of allowing people to post explicit or embarrassing photos and information about their romantic partners without their consent. Many of these so-called “revenge porn” sites also charge a fee to remove the photos or videos, which constitutes a kind of “virtual” extortion. However, the federal government has yet to pass laws regarding the production or distribution of nonconsensual pornography online, although New Jersey and some other states have laws against it.
Penalties for Federal Extortion
Federal extortion carries penalties that can include up to one year in federal prison, fines, or both. However, the sentence will depend on various factors, including the severity of the offense and any previous convictions. Further, the sentencing judge has broad discretion under the United States Sentencing Guidelines.
For a first-time offense, you may be able to get probation or serve your sentence in home confinement instead of prison. You may also receive community service or be required to attend court-ordered mental or substance-abuse treatment.
However, you can also face state charges in New Jersey for Theft by Extortion if the crime occurred in the state. It is a second-degree felony that carries a possible 10-year prison sentence, along with substantial fines and restitution.
Defenses for Federal Extortion
To convict you of federal extortion, prosecutors will have to convince the court that the intended victim reasonably believed your threat was real or that the act of intimidation was true. You may be able to show you did not use threats, force, or induce fear in the victim, or that you didn't intend to. Perhaps it was a misunderstanding during negotiations or the result of a heated disagreement.
You may also show you did not seek financial or some other gain as your purpose or that any money or property involved was yours.
Other defense options may include that you acted under duress or you lacked the mental capacity to commit the offense. Authorities could have infringed upon your constitutional rights during interrogations, searches, and seizures, or there simply may not be enough admissible evidence to prove your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
Get Help from an Experienced Federal Defense Attorney
The facts and circumstances of your case will determine your options for mounting the most effective defense possible. Even if prosecutors have sufficient evidence to prosecute you, a charge is not a conviction, and you have the right to defend yourself. However, you need an attorney on your side for help.
Attorney Joseph D. Lento has successfully represented many clients under investigation or charged with federal extortion and other crimes. He can review your case and advise you of your options while fighting for your rights and future. Call the Lento Law Firm at 888-535-3686 or fill out our contact form to request a confidential consultation.