Is Blackmail a Crime?

man on laptop
Blackmail is generally classified as a felony.
Last modified: December 8, 2022

As society progresses and globalization increases, so do criminal behaviors, such as blackmail and extortion.

But is blackmail a crime?

Yes, it is, indeed. Blackmail can be a federal crime that you go to prison for. 

What Is Blackmail?

Blackmail is a crime involving a threat to reveal personal information to coerce a person into doing something.

It impedes the victim’s free will to behave as they wish. That is why committing blackmail comes with legal consequences for the offender.

Blackmail vs. Extortion: What is the difference?

The terms blackmail and extortion are used interchangeably, though they are subtly different.

Extortion is coercing someone to obtain the victim’s money, property, or services.

Most states categorize extortion as a felony or misdemeanor, depending on the damage caused.

bra
Blackmail often involves a threat to make public revealing photos.

While blackmail is similar to extortion (both involve threatening someone else), blackmail does not include threats of violent behavior against a person or property.

Instead, the offender threatens to disclose personal and embarrassing information about someone. This information would be damaging to the individual’s reputation and life.

Is blackmail a crime if the information is false?

Whether the details are true or false is irrelevant to the crime. Blackmail is a crime even when the offender discloses rumors and lies.

whispering woman
Blackmail remains a crime even if the offender reveals falsehoods.

The reason why is simple. If it were okay to spread false information, anyone could get away with intimidating others for their own benefit.

The key to blackmail is threatening to reveal sensitive information unless the victim gives the offender something of value.

Cyber-blackmail

As technology progresses, new forms of crime appear. Cyber-blackmail is a cybercrime that involves extorting someone online to obtain something from them. 

laptop
Cybercrime has surged in recent years.

Sextortion is frequent, in which the offender blackmails others to receive compensation or sexually exploits the victim.

If they refuse, the criminal exposes their private content or information to embarrass them.

The Hobbs Act

The Hobbs Act is a federal statute that prohibits public officials from committing robbery or extortion.

If a public official uses their power or office to obtain money or properties from someone else, the crime falls within the federal crime category.

The consequences of this crime are more severe than usual.

The paradox of blackmail

We have discussed that spreading misinformation or rumors does not negate criminal charges. But what if someone threatens to reveal corruption or misbehavior?

The legal consequences are the same. This phenomenon is known as The paradox of blackmail.

Two rights can make a wrong.

Policeman
Threatening to reveal corruption for personal gain is a crime.

Here is an example.

Imagine you dream of landing a job at company X and have just discovered that company X is committing tax evasion.

You have two legal rights:

  • To report the tax evasion
  • To ask for a job contract

But if you combine these two rights and threaten the CEO to expose the fraud unless they hire you, you have committed blackmail. And you will now face the consequences if they report you to the authorities.

States & Blackmail

The definition of blackmail differs from State to State, but the legal consequences are usually the same.

Blackmail is a unique criminal violation in some States and extortion or coercion in others.

Furthermore, blackmail is more complex than other offenses since it is a crime even when the offender does not get anything in return.

The offense is the threat, not the results, encompassing a broader set of potential criminal activity.

The punishment varies depending on the State and the nature of the intent.

United States map
Punishment for blackmail varies from State to State.

In Kansas, for instance, blackmail is a felony against the person rather than a theft offense.

According to state law, blackmail is a threat to divulge humiliating or damaging information about a person to obtain something of value or persuade someone to act against their will.

California, on the other hand, incorporates blackmail within its extortion laws. The crime of extortion includes the elements of blackmail, such as threats to accuse someone of a crime, put them in disgrace or embarrassment, or reveal a secret about them.

Take New York for a third example. Blackmail in NY consists of threatening criminal charges, accusations of a crime, refusal to testify for a person in court, or exposure of a secret that leads to public ridicule to have someone behave in a way they would not otherwise.

Legal Consequences of Blackmail

The consequences may vary depending on location, intent, and the magnitude of the crime. Overall, there are two outcomes:

  • Felony
  • Misdemeanor

A felony is the worst type of crime, including rape, murder, burglary, and selling illegal drugs. Felonies are punishable by more than a year in state prison.

Prison
A felony conviction can have lengthy prison sentences.

On the other hand, misdemeanors are regarded as lesser crimes, including shoplifting and possessing unregistered firearms. They are punishable by up to a year in county jail.

Offenses that are misdemeanors can become felonies the second time the person commits them.

Thus, the severity of the punishment depends on whether the prosecutor charges the defendant with a misdemeanor or felony.

West Virginia, for example, is a State where extortion is a felony. The punishment ranges from one to five years in prison. However, if the offender does not obtain anything of value, the charge becomes a misdemeanor and carries two to twelve months in jail plus a fine.

On the contrary, in Arizona, extortion by threatening death or physical injuries subjects the defendant to up to twelve and a half years in prison. Since the charges and penalties vary greatly, it is best to consult a professional attorney in your State.

If the offender is a public official who violates the Hobbs Act, they can face up to twenty years in federal prison plus a substantial fine.

Common Defenses to the Charge

As attorneys or individuals facing criminal charges, you may wonder whether there is any potential defense to this crime.

Lady Justice statue
Lady Justice.

There are three primary defenses to this crime:

  1. Innocence: The defendant did not commit the crime.
  2. Lack of intent: The defendant did not intend to force the victim to provide something of value.
  3. Absence of threat: The defendant did not make a threat.

Summary of Blackmail in the United States

Blackmail is a crime in the United States. In some cases, it may even be considered a federal crime (if the offender is a public official). 

Blackmail consists of threatening someone to reveal sensitive information about them unless they provide something of value. The crime is the threat itself, and whether the information spread is true or false is irrelevant. 

Blackmail can fall within the category of felony or misdemeanor, and thus the legal consequences vary from State to State and criminal charges. 

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