One of the most infamous extortion cases in recent memory was the Autumn Jackson-Bill Cosby matter in the 1990s. According to prosecutor, Jackson, who claimed she was Cosby’s illegitimate doctor, threatened to sell her saga to a supermarket tabloid unless Cosby gave her $40 million. A federal jury sent her to prison.
This case raises some interesting points. An appeals court briefly set Jackson free, citing erroneous jury instructions. So, even if the defendant is morally guilty, a seemingly minor technicality can change the case’s outcome.
Furthermore, veracity, or the lack thereof, is irrelevant in these matters. Knowing what we know now about Cosby, Jackson’s allegations might well have been true. But whether truth was on her side or not, she did not have the legal right to demand money from Cosby, especially since she threatened to go public.
The takeaway is that almost all criminal cases have procedural and/or substantive defenses. If that’s the case, a Marietta criminal defense lawyer can leverage that defense during plea negotiations. This approach usually leads to a more favorable plea bargain. If the prosecutor insists on going to trial, these defenses could result in a dismissal of charges or a not-guilty verdict.
Elements of the Offense
Theft by extortion always involves taking property. The taking could be direct or indirect, and the property could be cash or non-cash. If Jackson threatened to sell her story and Cosby offered her hush money, Jackson would probably not be guilty of theft by extortion, even if she accepted Cosby’s money. Her defense would be much stronger if she refused it.
Extortion also always involves an injury. This injury, or the threat of injury, could come in several forms, as outlined below.
Inflict Physical Injury
“Give me X or else” is the classic extortion threat. Obviously, the threat involves money or property. The threat of physical violence, however, is more subtle. Most reasonable people would assume that the “or else” means physical injury, even if the defendant does not specifically threaten such conduct.
Make a Criminal Accusation
These cases are usually “I know what you did last summer” extortions. Once again, there must be a threat and a taking. If Leah threatens to call the police on Rachel so Rachel will admit what she did, Leah is not guilty of theft by extortion. If Leah threatens to call the police unless Rachel giver her money, she is probably guilty.
The taking need not be the only motive, or even the primary motive. If Leah had good motives and bad motives, her mixed emotions do not affect her guilt. However, the taking must involve property. If Leah threatens to call the police unless Rachel appears in a commercial she is filming, Leah is not guilty of extortion, assuming she pays Rachel her full salary.
Withhold or Take Public Action
As mentioned, the taking could be direct or indirect. Leah gains nothing if she threatens to block Rachel’s building permit application. But Leah could still be guilty of theft by extortion. The same thing is true if Leah threatens to call the health department about Rachel’s restaurant. Leah’s ability or inability to do these things is pretty much irrelevant. If Rachel reasonably believed she had the power to carry out her threats, that’s usually sufficient.
Withhold or Provide Testimony or Information
This form of theft by extortion usually involves legal proceedings. The process could be civil, criminal, or administrative. Leah is guilty of theft by extortion if she threatens to leave town unless Rachel gives her money.
If the amount of money or property is over $500, theft by extortion is usually a felony. These offenses also have significant indirect consequences. To most people, extortion is a violent crime, even if there is no physical violence involved. In fact, to most people theft by extortion is a predatory offense. Many Cobb County jurors dislike these crimes intently.
Particularly in serious felony matters, theft by extortion prosecutions typically involve lengthy investigations and information from confidential informants (CIs). An error in either area could be a procedural defense.
When investigators bring subjects in for questioning, they usually give the Miranda warnings (you have the right to remain silent, etc.) at the stationhouse. In many situations, that’s too late. The law requires officers to warn defendants before custodial interrogation begins. Most officers ask at least some questions before they reach the stationhouse.
CIs usually receive money or leniency in exchange for the information they provide. Therefore, unless they have excellent track records or there is corroborating evidence, CI statements are often unreliable. Many people will say practically anything for love or money.
Procedural defenses are not outcome-determinative. In other words, the error need not have changed the case’s outcome. Any error, no matter how insignificant, could be enough to warrant a dismissal.
Ownership could be a defense. You cannot steal your own property. If Rachel took Leah’s car and Leah had to threaten Rachel to get it back, Leah might have a defense.
Overall lack of evidence could be a defense as well. Often, theft by extortion matters are “he said, she said” cases. Frequently, the complaining witness’ testimony is the only evidence of a threat. So, if the complainant has a history of making false statements, the jury might not believe him/her. Prior inconsistent statements are usually admissible to show lack of credibility.
Depending on the pleadings, voluntary intoxication might be a defense as well. At common law, theft involves the intent to “permanently” deprive the owner of the property. So, at common law, theft is a specific intent crime. The defendant must intend the conduct (taking the property) and the result (permanently depriving the owner of property).
As a matter of science, intoxicated individuals cannot commit specific intent crimes. Their brains do not have the capacity for such thought processes.
Theft by extortion investigations and prosecutions have many moving parts. For a free consultation with an experienced Marietta criminal defense attorney, contact The Phillips Law Firm, LLC. After-hours and home visits are available.