Monday, April 16, 2012

Extortion Defined


In a case of first impression, the Sixth Circuit defines extortion under 18 U.S.C. § 875(d). This well-publicized case involves a Michigan couple seeking money from the actor John Stamos in exchange for not publicly revealing several alleged pictures of an hotel party involving the then-17 year-old defendant.

Following the Second Circuit, the Court finds the statute constitutional because it requires the threat be wrongful and made in conjunction with a specific intent to extort. A wrongful threat is defined as having no nexus to a true "claim of right":

Their only leverage for obtaining this money was the threat of selling the photographs to a tabloid, as evidenced by the fact that if they had actually sold the photographs to a tabloid, they would have no longer had a basis for insisting that Stamos pay them $680,000 in cash. Thus, because Coss and Sippola were not using their threat to collect on a debt owed to them, or to exercise any other claim of right against Stamos, their threat had no nexus to a valid claim of right and was wrongful. Moreover, this wrongful threat was made with the deliberate intention of extracting the desired sum of money from Stamos.
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Although Coss and Sippola are correct that they may have had a lawful right to possess the photographs and a lawful right to offer Stamos the opportunity to purchase the photographs, their conduct became unlawful when their offer to Stamos was made in the form of a wrongful threat accompanied by an intent to extort.

Because “true threats” are not protected speech, the statute is constitutional. The full opinion, United States v. Coss et al., Nos. 10-2230/10-2331 (6th Cir. April 16, 2012) can be found here.

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