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Extortion and blackmail in D.C.

It is a criminal offense in Washington, D.C. to obtain something of value or to compel action through threats or coercion.  As described in greater detail below, the two related offenses are extortion and blackmail.  

Extortion is similar to robbery in that it combines two other criminal offenses:  theft and assault.  Like theft, extortion involves the wrongful taking of another person’s property.  Like assault, it requires force or the threat of force.  Extortion is different from robbery in that, instead of threatening immediate force or violence, it threatens future harm, either physical or economic.

If extortion is one step removed from robbery, then blackmail is two steps removed.  It too involves the wrongful taking of another person’s property.  And it too requires a threat.  The threat in blackmail, however, is not of force or violence, either immediate or in the future.  Instead, the threat in blackmail is one of ruined reputation, disgrace, or embarrassment.

There are two elements to the criminal offense of extortion in Washington, D.C.  First, the person needs to obtain or seek to obtain the property of another with the person’s consent.  Second, the other person’s consent needs to have been coerced through “actual or threatened violence or by wrongful threat of economic injury.”

Blackmail also has two elements.  The first relates to criminal intent.  That is, the person needs to intend to obtain property from someone else or to cause the other person to do or refrain from doing something.  Second, in order to achieve the intended goal, the person needs to threaten either:  (1) to accuse the other person of a crime, (2) to expose a secret or asserted fact that could subject the other person to “hatred, contempt, or ridicule,” or (3) to damage the other person’s reputation.

The maximum penalty for a conviction for  extortion is a $10,000 fine and/or imprisonment for 10 years.  The maximum penalty for blackmail is a $1000 fine and/or imprisonment for not more than 5 years.  D.C. Criminal Code 22-3251; D.C. Criminal Code 22-3252.