Extortion vs. Coercion: What's the Difference?

Updated May 3, 2024
6 min read
Title "Extortion vs Coercion", bank notes, papers, scales

Extortion and coercion are often used interchangeably, but they are different according to criminal law. The legal definition of coercion covers various topics because this term itself is related to manipulative actions and intentions. Extortion refers to attempts to get tangible assets like property, personal belongings, works, etc. 

Sometimes, these two may be even bound in the extortion vs blackmail vs coercion paradigm. Let’s explore the meaning of each crime and its relation one to another.

What Is Extortion?

Unlike the legal definition of coercion, extortion is a crime when one person tries to get money or property by threatening violence to another person, threatening to accuse another person of a crime, or threatening to reveal damaging or private information about the other person. Under federal law, the crime of extortion usually refers to actions by government officials or public officials, but it can also apply to private citizens.

Extortion starts with a threat, so no friendly extortion definition exists in law. Some type of threat must be made by the person who is extorting another. They might threaten the other person with injury or harm. In states like California, an extortion example is if a person threatens to hurt another person unless that person relinquishes money or property or threatens to expose a secret, file a report with immigration, or file a complaint of inappropriate behavior. The threat can be made in writing, using nonverbal gestures, or even with verbal threats. In some states, simply making a threat is enough to be charged with extortion.

There must be intent behind that threat. If an offender threatens to hurt another person specifically if there is no exchange of money or property, then both the threat and the intent are present.

The threat also must be severe enough that it actually causes fear in the victim, a fear of violence, a fear of social stigma, a fear of deportation, or any other type of fear that is significant enough to cause the victim to hand over whatever the person wants.

The property extorted doesn’t have to be big, such as a house or a car. It can be anything that has some kind of value, including an agreement not to compete with another business, a liquor license, or something tangible like cash, artwork, etc.

If any of these threats continue, it’s best to prepare a cease and desist letter that will warn the offender of consequences of their actions, and seek a competent lawyer in your locality.

What Is Coercion?

The coercion legal definition usually covers political activity, sex trafficking, sports, jobs, or housing. There are many examples of coercion in law, but they all refer to situations when a person is under duress because they have been coerced into doing something after having been threatened.

The coercion meaning in law is very similar to extortion in that it starts with a threat. One person threatens to cause harm or injury to another, expose a secret, file a complaint for inappropriate behavior, file a report with immigration, and so on. The threat can be made in writing, verbally, or with nonverbal communication.

There also must be intent behind the coercion vs blackmail. When a threat is made to coerce someone, the intent has to be that the victim or person being threatened will do something for the person who is coercing them. See the following examples of the coercion meaning in law: 

  • Coercion and politics — an offender threatens a politician to do or not do something, vote one way or the other, etc. 
  • Coercion and housing — an offender threatens another person in order to get out of or stay in a house. Fair housing usually involves threats of reporting people to immigration, and it might correspond with other laws having to do with things like sex trafficking.
  • Coercion and sex trafficking — an offender threatens an individual in exchange for sexual favors or prostitution.
  • Coercion and sports — an offender threatens an athlete to sign over certain rights as a condition of participation or the quintessential boxing trope of losing on purpose so that someone else can make money.
  • Coercion and jobs — government employees might try to coerce other employees into not taking a vacation or not exercising their medical leave rights by threatening retaliation in the workplace.

The Main Difference Between Extortion and Coercion

Understanding extortion vs blackmail vs coercion can be difficult when so many people use the terms interchangeably. The main difference comes down to the purpose:

Extortion

The purpose of extortion is to obtain money or property.

Coercion

The purpose of coercion is to compel someone to do something.

What Are the Penalties for Coercion and Extortion?

The penalties for extortion and coercion law definitions vary based on the state. In most states, the official act of extortion is considered a felony, and that comes with significant fines and prison time. It can be classified as a misdemeanor in some situations, which brings with it shorter jail sentences and lower fines. The typical penalties include:

  • Fines up to $10,000 for each conviction of extortion;
  • Restitution paid to the victim;
  • Up to 15 years in prison, depending on the facts of the case; and
  • Probation for at least 12 months.

The penalties for the coercion definition in law vary based on the type. As mentioned, coercion can involve multiple variables and, as such, can come with multiple criminal charges.

Is Coercion a Felony?

If a threat resulted in a physical injury or property damage, the offender might be charged with a felony. 

Serious crimes, such as those involving sex trafficking, can result in up to 20 years in prison and significant fines. If the victim of coercion and sex trafficking is a minor, the penalty can be up to life in prison. Similarly, the coercion definition in law and political activity can bring significant fines and up to three years in prison.

Can a Person Be Charged With Both?

In some cases, an individual can be charged with both extortion and coercion. For example, a criminal landlord extorts an immigrant family by forcing them to pay extra money to keep the landlord from reporting them to immigration. That landlord might face extortion charges. If he also coerced the family into exchanging sexual favors for not reporting them, he could face a charge of coercion in addition to the charge of extortion, which would result in multiple felonies and misdemeanors, compounding the fines and jail time.

What to Do If I’ve Been Charged With Coercion or Extortion

If, according to the coercion law definition, you have been charged with coercion or extortion, it is important that you consider speaking with an attorney who can advise you as to an appropriate legal strategy given the circumstances of your situation. For example, if law enforcement arrested you for coercion or extortion but did not read your legal rights, one strategy could be to use that against the public officials who failed to do their part. Conversely, if you have been charged with another crime because you were coerced or extorted, a qualified lawyer can help you.

Conclusion

Both extortion and coercion are serious crimes. The extortion and coercion legal definitions render different penalties depending on the circumstances and situations. Understanding the key difference between coercion and extortion is important if you have been charged with either. Consider reaching out to a skilled attorney to learn more about your legal rights.

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