Extortion is a form of theft and is often prosecuted as a felony in most states across America. However, extortion is not always prosecuted as a felony offense. Recognizable forms of extortion include blackmail or a shakedown. The crime of extortion is defined as obtaining something of value through coercion. While extortion is a form of theft, it differs from the crime of robbery because the threat does not pose an immediate danger to the victim.
Below we’ll go over the laws, penalties, and sentencing for extortion crimes, including how state punishments can vary. We’ll also look at some famous examples of extortion.
What is Extortion?
Extortion is using the threat of action to obtain something of value, usually money, from another person. One of the more common forms of extortion is “protection,” a racket famously used by organized crime in which someone collects money from businesses and store owners in return for their “protection.” Multiple criteria must be met for a crime to be considered extortion.
- Threat – Extortion starts with a threat of action.
- Intent – The specific intent of the person making the threat must be to obtain something of value from the other person.
- Fear– The threat of action must be to cause fear in the victim. It isn’t required that the victim feels afraid, but that the intent of the perpetrator was to cause fear.
- Property – The property in question doesn’t necessarily have to be physical property or have a monetary value. Courts have ruled that property can include a wide range of examples, including agreements to not compete in business.
Extortion differs from another U.S. property law called “exaction.” The definition of exaction is similar to extortion, stating that it is “the action of demanding and obtaining something from someone, especially a payment or service.” The difference between exaction and extortion is the legality of the two. Extortion is a crime, but exaction is a legal tool used by municipalities.
In Florida, for example, “exactions are burdens or requirements a local government places on a developer to dedicate land or construct or pay for all or a portion of the costs of capital improvements needed for public facilities as a condition of development approval.”
Although exaction is legal to enforce, local governments must be careful about how the exaction is implemented to avoid legal action being taken.
Different Extortion Laws by State
Each state has its own laws governing extortion, and the crime is not always referred to as extortion.
In Montana, for example, extortion is referred to as “intimidation.” Montana law defines intimidation as “a person commits the offense of intimidation when, with the purpose to cause another to perform or omit the performance of any act, the person communicates to another, under circumstances that reasonably tend to produce a fear that it will be carried out, a threat to perform without lawful authority any of the following acts:
- Inflict physical harm on the person threatened or any other person
- Subject any person to physical confinement or restraint
- Commit any felony
A person commits the offense of intimidation if the person knowingly communicates a threat or false report of a pending fire, explosion, or disaster that would endanger life or property.”
The punishment for intimidation in Montana is a maximum of 10 years in jail and up to $50,000 in fines.
In New York law, the term for extortion is “coercion,” and there are two degrees. Coercion occurs when someone compels another person to an act by instilling a fear of:
- Bodily injury
- Destruction of property
- Any crime against the victim
- Criminal accusations against the victim
- Exposing a secret that would subject the victim to disdain or ridicule
- Testifying against the victim in court
- Any act which would hurt the victim’s safety, health, business, finances, or reputation
First-degree coercion in New York is a class D felony which is punishable by three to seven years in jail. Second-degree coercion is a class A misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in prison.
In New York, there is a separate law governing “larceny by extortion,” which differs from coercion. The difference between the two offenses is that larceny by extortion is specifically for property crimes in which the property exchanges hands from the victim to the perpetrator. You can be charged with larceny by extortion in New York if you threaten to do one of the following in exchange for property:
- Damage the victim’s property
- Inflict bodily injury
- Accuse another person, not necessarily the victim, of a crime to cause criminal charges
- Reveal a secret, irrespective of its truthfulness, and state it as fact in order to subject the victim to disdain or ridicule
- Testify against the victim in court
- Abuse your position as a public servant in a position of authority to adversely affect the victim
- Perform any act which would hurt the victim’s safety, health, business, finances, or reputation
The punishment for larceny by extortion in New York is, at minimum, a class E felony, which can result in a prison sentence of up to four years. Depending on the value of the property in question, this crime can escalate to a class D, C, or B felony. A class D felony has a maximum sentence of seven years, a class C felony has a maximum sentence of 15 years, and a class B felony has a maximum sentence of 25 years in jail.
In California, a distinction is made between extortion and robbery. In a robbery, the property of one person is taken by another without consent in their immediate presence. With extortion, the victim gives consent to the exchange of property due to a threat. Threats that can constitute extortion in California are:
- Causing bodily injury
- Accusing the victim or a member of their family of committing a crime
- Revealing information about the victim which could lead to criminal charges
- Disclosing any secret about the victim
California punishes extortion as both a misdemeanor and a felony. A misdemeanor charge has a maximum sentence of one year in jail and a fine up to $10,000. A felony charge can result in two to four years in state prison.
Like Montana, Illinois refers to extortion as intimidation. This charge can become aggravated intimidation in Illinois if it’s associated with gang activities, when used against specific government officials, or used to prevent someone from becoming a community policing volunteer.
Intimidation is considered a class 3 felony in Illinois and carries a sentence of two to five years in jail, along with a fine up to $25,000. Aggravated intimidation is a class 2 felony that is punishable by three to seven years in jail and a fine up to $25,000.
Famous Cases of Extortion
Extortion gets headlines because the rich and the famous are often the victims of this crime. Here are eight of the more recognizable cases of extortion, along with the penalties suffered by the perpetrators.
During his time as an actor on the TV series “Glee,” John Stamos was the victim of extortion by 31-year-old Scott Edward Sippola and 24-year-old Allison Coss. Sippoloa and Coss were sentenced to four years in jail. They faced up to nine years for the crimes of conspiracy and interstate communications to extort money.
The convicted couple attempted to extort $680,000 from Stamos, threatening to sell compromising photos. Sippola and Coss sent close to 40 emails to Stamos saying that they had photos of him using illegal drugs and that they would sell them to a tabloid if he didn’t pay them. The photos were supposedly taken when Stamos was at a party in Florida that Coss also attended. The court’s opinion was that the photos never existed in the first place.
The FBI began monitoring Stamos’ email account. Pretending to be his manager, the FBI communicated with Coss and Sippola by phone to arrange for an exchange of the money. They were arrested in December 2009 at an airport in Michigan.
The defense attorney for Coss and Sippola claimed that Stamos had a fling with Coss when she was 17-years-old and vacationing in Florida on spring break in 2004. Stamos testified that nothing inappropriate happened at the 2004 party and that the photos did not exist.
In 2007, Oprah Winfrey was the target of a $1.5 million extortion attempt from an Atlanta man named Kiefer Bonvillian. Bonvillian said that he had recorded conversations between himself and an employee of Harpo, Oprah’s production company, that supposedly contained information that would end her career.
Oprah went straight to the FBI, who monitored conversations with Bonvillian. Eventually, he agreed to exchange the tapes for $1.5 million after another Harpo employee had wired him a $3,000 down payment. As soon as he handed over the tapes in a hotel parking lot, Bonvillian was arrested. He was charged in a federal court for attempting to extort money by threatening to harm another person’s reputation.
However, Bonvillian did not go down without a fight. He claimed that he had offers for his tell-all book ranging between $500,000 and $3 million and that he specifically avoided doing anything against the law. The feds eventually dropped the charges as long as Bonvillian took a series of drug tests and performed 50 hours of community service.
Having the charges dismissed was not enough for Bonvillian. A year later, he filed a lawsuit against Oprah seeking damages of $180 million based on his own reputation being hurt by the ordeal. Bonvillian claimed that Oprah and her attorney made false statements about him in order to have him arrested for extortion. The details of the suit are unknown, but Bonvillian eventually wrote a book titled Ruthless detailing his taped conversations.
A woman claiming to be Bill Cosby’s daughter attempted to extort the comedian of 40 million dollars in 1998. The woman, Autumn Jackson, threatened to give her story to a tabloid if Cosby didn’t pay her. Cosby knew of Jackson and had been paying for some of her educational expenses, although he denied that she was his daughter. At one point, Jackson said that she was out of money, so Cosby sent her an additional $3,000. When that wasn’t enough, the plot of extortion came about. Jackson started by asking for 40 million dollars, and eventually settled for 24 million.
She and her co-conspirator, Jose Medina, were arrested outside of Cosby’s lawyer’s office after signing a settlement. They were convicted in 1997.
However, in an unprecedented series of events, Jackson was released after serving 14 months of a 26-month sentence. A three-judge panel on the United States Court of Appeals overruled the sentence, saying that the judge in the trial had incorrectly instructed the jury. But that same panel then reversed their decision a year later, citing a Supreme Court decision on jury instruction that was ruled just one day after their initial reversal. Jackson was sent back to prison to finish her sentence.
In 2009, David Letterman told a live audience about his experience with extortion. Letterman admitted to sexual relationships with female staffers, which was the subject of a blackmail attempt to extort him out of two million dollars. In a delivered package, the perpetrator threatened to make a screenplay out of Letterman’s transgressions and provided proof of his knowledge.
With the help of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, Letterman met with the blackmailer and gave him a fake two-million-dollar check. The man who was extorting Letterman was Joe Halderman, a writer, director, and producer for CBS News. Ironically, at the time of the arrest, Halderman was a producer for the true-crime series 48 Hours. Halderman pled guilty to grand larceny in the second degree and received a sentence of six months in jail followed by five years of probation. Of the six months, Halderman served four before being released.
This was also not the first time David Letterman had been the target of an extortion plot. The first instance was in 2005 when a handyman working on Letterman’s ranch was arrested for plotting to kidnap Letterman’s son, who was just 16 months old at the time. The perpetrator, Kelly Frank, pled not guilty but received a sentence of 10 years in prison.
Action actor Steven Seagal was the subject of an extortion attempt from a former business partner and longtime producer, Julius Nasso, who also had alleged affiliations with organized crime. Shortly after Nasso discovered that Seagal no longer wanted to make movies with him, Seagal was ordered into a car on the streets of Brooklyn and taken to a restaurant. Seagal was told that he must go back to making movies and pay them $150,000 for each movie made with Nasso.
In order to buy himself time, Seagal agreed and met with the FBI. The FBI put wiretaps in place and recorded a Gambino family captain and soldier laughing about the event, describing it as something straight out of a movie. The Gambino family is a reputed crime organization that is famously one of the “Five Families” that control organized crime in New York City.
Julius Nasso pleaded guilty to the charge of extortion an August 2003 hearing. He was sentenced to one year and one day in prison and fined $75,000. The sentence took into account Nasso’s previously unblemished history with the law, as well as a history of anxiety and depression.
In 2012, Jennifer Lopez was the target of an extortion attempt by her former driver, Hakob Manoukian. Manoukian threatened to reveal personal information and demanded a payment of $2.8 million in order to not release the information. The conflict began when Manoukian wanted to control Lopez’s entire security team and receive a pay raise. When that didn’t happen, he resorted to extortion.
Manoukian also sued Lopez for wrongful termination and breach of contract. In response, Lopez filed a $20 million extortion countersuit. However, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Joseph Kalin dismissed the countersuit in December 2012. Lopez and Manoukian settled their dispute out of court in February 2013.
In 2014, Alex Rodriguez broke up with a woman who proceeded to ask for small amounts of money from the baseball star, which he never gave her. However, when Rodriguez’s relationship with Jennifer Lopez came into the spotlight, the ex-girlfriend started asking for larger amounts of money. When Rodriguez again refused, the unnamed ex-girlfriend threatened to sell all of her text messages from Rodriguez to multiple media outlets unless he paid her $600,000. Rodriguez left the case up to his legal team, but no further legal action took place.
In 2009, Cindy Crawford was the target of an extortion attempt by German model Edis Kayalar. Kayalar had a photo of Crawford’s daughter that she threatened to make public, and Crawford’s husband, Rande Gerber, paid him $1,000 to stay quiet. However, Kayalar demanded more money, so Crawford and Gerber went to the police. Kayalar was arrested and tried in Germany, where he was sentenced to two years in prison for extortion.