Blackmail and Extortion
Modern Federal Statutes
Federal statutes make many particular kinds of extortion or blackmail illegal. For example, extortion by officials of the federal government is a crime (18 U.S.C. § 872). It is blackmail to demand or receive a valuable thing by offering not to inform against anyone who has violated federal law (18 U.S.C. § 873). It is also prohibited to mail or transmit in interstate commerce certain threats with the intent to extort, including threats to accuse of a crime or to injure person, property, or reputation (18 U.S.C. §§ 875–877). The Travel Act (18 U.S.C. § 1952) also punishes certain kinds of blackmail and extortion.
The federal extortion statute that has generated the most litigation is the 1946 "Hobbs Act" (18 U.S.C. § 1951), which prohibits racketeering in interstate commerce. The act prohibits robbery and extortion when these would affect interstate commerce. The U.S. Supreme Court interpreted official extortion under the Hobbs Act in two cases from the early 1990s. In McCormick v. United States, 500 U.S. 257 (1991), the Court held that there was a requirement of an explicit quid pro quo in official extortion cases involving campaign contributions. Then, in Evans v. United States, 504 U.S. 255 (1992), the Court held that (1) there is no requirement of inducement for official extortion; (2) official extortion does not require coercion; (3) bribery is not a defense to extortion; (4) official extortion is not limited to false pretenses; and (5) the government "need only show that a public official has obtained a payment to which he was not entitled, knowing that the payment was made in return for official acts." Thus, bribery and extortion under color of official right substantially overlap.
The most controversial interpretations of the Hobbs Act have been in the area of labor extortion. In United States v. Teamsters Local 807, 315 U.S. 521 (1942), the Court restricted the operation of the Hobbs Act's predecessor so that is did not cover labor violence used to seek work or wages. In Enmons v. United States, 410 U.S. 396 (1973), the Court held that no extortion had occurred, although a union had allegedly blown up a power station to enforce its demands for higher wages. Apparently, only two basic types of union extortion are illegal under the Hobbs Act: where the work sought is totally unwanted or unneeded, and where a union official is seeking a personal payoff or kickback. In essence, the Court has refused to apply the Hobbs Act to unions that seek almost any legitimate objective, no matter what means are used to obtain that objective.
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