Extortion is legally defined as “the obtaining of property from another induced by wrongful use of actual or threatened force.” Though extortion can be committed by any member of the general public, it is often associated with the unlawful taking of money by a government official. Extortion frequently occurs when a government official, such as a police officer or member of a licensing authority, uses governmental power to obtain money or other property from someone, or to compel the victim to do anything against his or her will. Yet, organized crime syndicates are also notorious for committing extortion, threatening harm to a person or business should payment not be made.
In Massachusetts, under Mass. Gen. Laws. ch. 265 sec. 25, both written and verbal threats to use official power to obtain property can qualify as extortion; In a case such as this, the threat must be considered to be malicious. Extortion is a serious felony – it carries anywhere from 2 1/2 to 15 years in jail.
There is a fine line between extortion and blackmail. Though very similar in nature, extortion involves the threat of an illegal act (such as physically harming someone) when demanding money or property; blackmail typically involves a less serious threat (such as divulging personal information about someone). The Massachusetts extortion law covers any and all threats made in demand for money or personal property.
Extortion is one way criminal organizations do business. A member of a crime outfit might get orders to collect money from certain small business people in a particular neighborhood, and if they refuse to pay up, he could threaten to use violence or damage property.
In a more concrete example, just last year, one of the most prolific organized crime figures in Boston history was indicted on attempted extortion and conspiracy charges. Howie Winter, former leader of the Winter Hill Gang and predecessor of James “Whitey” Bulger, allegedly tried to extort $35,000 from two men. Prosecutors said that a man contacted the victims to obtain a $100,000 business loan, which they agreed to. One month after the borrower stopped paying the victims for the loan, Winter arranged a meeting with the victims, during which Winter told them they each had to pay him $35,000 for loaning the money without his permission.
In tape recordings, Winter told the victims they would “have some problems if [they didn’t] come up with the money.” The victims noted that they felt their lives were in danger. This statement shows how a threat doesn’t have to be very explicit to support an extortion charge, but does have to imply malicious intent.
Public officials have also been known to use their power extortionately. In a high profile saga of government corruption, former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick is on trial for federal extortion and fraud charges for allegedly awarding high-dollar city contracts in exchange for nearly $1 million. A local businessman testified that he contributed around $440,000 to Kilpatrick’s campaign, lifestyle, and to Kilpatrick’s father over a 2-year period, in the hopes that the mayor would support his plan for a riverfront casino.
Federal prosecutors say that when a government official simply accepts anything knowing that something is expected in return, this constitutes extortion, no matter whether a threat was made or whether the official actually does anything in return.
In a clearer example of extortion, Kilpatrick’s father allegedly threatened to terminate a $1.2 billion dollar deal with a waste management company if it did not pay him a certain amount of money.
Extortion can occur in many forms, over a very vast scale. As described, extortion can involve billions of dollars, or very few. The criminal act can be committed by organized criminals, government officials, or everyday citizens. Extortion occurs more often than one might expect, yet the crime should never be taken lightly.