The use of force, or the threat of force, to obtain money, something else of value, or services from a person is often known as the criminal offense of extortion. Many jurisdictions classify extortion as a “crime against property” or a theft-related offense, but the threat of harm to a person is an essential element of the offense. This could consist of physical harm, financial harm, destruction of property, or abuse of official power.

Types of Extortion

One form of extortion, commonly known as “protection,” involves a promise to refrain from a harmful action, which by necessity implies a threat of harm, in exchange for ongoing payments. Extortion that involves the use of information, rather than force, in order to coerce someone is classified as blackmail in some jurisdictions. Large-scale extortion, such as extortion performed by or on behalf of an organization, may be prosecuted as racketeering under statutes like the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO).

Legal Definition of Extortion

California’s extortion statute, which defines the offense based on two elements, the alleged perpetrator’s objective and the means used, offers a good example of extortion’s legal definition. The statute prohibits a person (1) from obtaining someone else’s property or “an official act of a public officer;” (2) by wrongfully using force against the person, instilling fear of harm in the person, or acting “under color of official right.”

Under federal law, the offense of extortion typically requires the use of interstate communications to make a threat. Threats to federal or foreign officials in order to obtain some sort of official benefit may also be prosecuted as extortion under federal law. Certain federal officials are subject to additional statutes of regulations regarding extortion, such as laws prohibiting customs officials from demanding additional fees at ports.

How Is Extortion Different from Racketeering?

Racketeering is a broad category of actions related to organized crime, often including extortion. Prosecutions under RICO might include allegations of extortion against public officials to obtain favorable actions or hinder investigations. They might also include alleged “protection rackets,” through which a criminal enterprise demands “protection money” from residents or businesses in an area, with the understanding that without the payments, the harm would come from the very people offering protection.

How Is Extortion Different from Bribery?

Extortion can involve attempts to influence public officials, which is often also the objective of bribery. The difference is in the means used. Bribery involves payment of money or something else of value to a public official in exchange for some sort of action, while extortion involves threats.

How Is Extortion Different from Robbery or Other Theft Crimes?

Extortion is often classified as a property crime, as it can involve wrongfully obtaining property from another person. The crime of robbery also involves the use or threat of force to obtain property from someone. The difference is in the nature of the threat. Robbery requires immediacy, in which a person threatens imminent harm in order to obtain money or other property in that moment. The threat does not need to be verbal, and could involve little more than displaying a weapon in a threatening manner.

While a robber generally does not give a victim an opportunity to weigh his options, an extortionist relies on the victim making a conscious decision to cooperate in order to avoid future harm. Extortion requires communication of a threat, verbally or in writing, with a clear connection between the threat and a demand.