Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Feb 20, 2013

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Extortion and blackmail are similar in concept, but there are differences between the two. Extortion is a form of theft that occurs when an offender obtains money, property, or services from another person through coercion. To constitute coercion, the necessary act can be the threat of violence, destruction of property, or improper government action. Inaction of the testimony or the withholding of testimony in a legal action are also acts that constitute coercion.

As a theft crime, extortion is often graded as a felony or a misdemeanor depending on the amount of money or the value of the property or services extorted from the victim. Originally, extortion was a crime only against public officials who committed the acts that made up the crime under the color of their office. Recently, however, it has been extended to include extortion committed by private individuals.

Distinction Between Blackmail and Extortion

Blackmail, in contrast to extortion, is when the offender threatens to reveal information about a victim or his family members that is potentially embarrassing, socially damaging, or incriminating unless a demand for money, property, or services is met. Even if the information is true or actually incriminating, you can still be charged with blackmail if you threaten to reveal it unless the victim meets your demand.

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Legal Consequences of Extortion and Blackmail

Many states combine the crimes of extortion and blackmail under one general law. In California, for example, the applicable statute is known as the California Extortion and Blackmail Law. Under this law, anyone who threatens an individual with the use of force (extortion) or threatens to reveal damaging information about a person or his family members is guilty of a crime. Under California law, extortion or blackmail are graded as felonies and are punishable by up to four years in prison and a maximum fine of $10,000.

In the end, if you are charged with either of these crimes, it does not matter if it is considered extortion or blackmail. What matters is that you get help from an attorney as soon as possible because both extortion and blackmail are serious crimes.