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.

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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