Blackmail is a criminal offense in which a party, who has obtained information about a victim, demands or receives “money or any other valuable thing” as a consequence for not informing third parties about the information in question. Blackmail is considered a federal crime and can be punishable by either fines or imprisonment depending upon the specifics of the case. The victim does not need to be a federal office-holder in order for blackmail to be prosecuted at the federal level.
Federal blackmail laws are intended to protect individuals, particularly those who wield public power, from undue influence by third parties. Unfortunately, federal blackmail cases have been notoriously difficult to prosecute because victimized parties typically avoid coming forward in order to press federal charges. Federal charges in blackmail cases often require that the information being protected come to light, which can be scandalous for the aggrieved party even when they choose to follow the law.
Blackmail Crimes & Charges
Federal blackmail laws do not necessarily require that the aggrieved party be a member of a state or federal government. There are actually several different scenarios under which blackmail charges can be pursued at the federal level regardless of the identities of the aggrieved party or the alleged perpetrator:
- As discussed, federal blackmail charges can be brought up in cases where the alleged perpetrator seeks to wield undue influence over political outcomes or operations as a result of possessing or withholding information on a politician.
- Federal blackmail charges can also be brought up in cases where an individual has used any interstate means of communication, including the internet, telephone system, or mail, in order to communicate the threat of blackmail or receive consideration for withholding the information in question.
- Although blackmail is a crime that does require the victim to participate by giving the perpetrator a consideration of value and concealing that information from others, it is generally understood that the blackmailed party did so under duress. Under this well-known legal doctrine, he or she does not generally face legal repercussions, although such may be possible if public funds were misused to pay a blackmailer, for example.
Under federal statues, blackmail is a felony crime that can be punishable by up to a year in prison and substantial fines. Although blackmail carries a relatively low prison sentence, it is important to understand that commission of blackmail can also entail a number of other charges, including federal extortion charges, which carry a sentence of up to twenty years in prison.
Blackmail Sentencing Guidelines
In addition to fines and imprisonment, federal blackmail charges can be compounded by additional charges including extortion, racketeering, and others. Judges will generally look at whether or not the case in question is a result of organized criminal activity. Even in the case of private individuals, those found guilty of blackmail may be required to pay restitution to the victim and may face probation in addition to a prison term and fines.
Blackmail Statute of Limitations
18 USC 3282 in the United States Code indicates that no one can be prosecuted, tried or punished for any noncapital offense after five years. An indictment must be found or information instituted before that time. However, blackmail may be prosecuted beyond this period if its commission also included capital offenses or other federal crimes. These can include, but are not limited to, murder, kidnapping, and espionage.
In addition to political figures, celebrities are very frequently the victim of blackmail plots. These plots can be carried out by individuals with tenuous connections to them, such as studio interns, professional service providers, and others. Victims often choose to pay off a blackmailer rather than suffer the negative attention that such a situation can cause.
- In 2010, a man pled guilty in a plot to blackmail Tonight Show host David Letterman in a scheme to receive $2 million dollars from the comedian in exchange for keeping quiet about alleged sexual affairs that Letterman had engaged in around the set. (CNN)
- One of the most famous blackmail and extortion cases of all time took place in the 1980s in Japan and remains unsolved to this day. Businessman Katushisa Ezaki, president of Japan’s world famous Ezaki Gilco Corporation, was abducted as part of what many believe to be one of the largest extortion rings in world history. (Japan Times)
Blackmail Quick Links & References
- Extortion, Blackmail & Related Statutes at Cornell Law
- Legaltree Article Describing the Crime in Canadian Jurisdictions
- Understanding the Difference Between Extortion and Blackmail
- The History of Blackmail and Its Federal Prosecution
- Understanding Blackmail & Extortion Federally and in the States
Blackmail Laws by State
Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Wyoming