Federal Extortion Laws and Sentencing – Insights from a Lawyer
Extortion is a serious crime that involves illegally obtaining money, property, or services from someone through coercion, threats, or force. While extortion is prohibited under state laws, there are also federal statutes that criminalize certain types of extortion that impact interstate commerce or involve public corruption.
In this article, we’ll provide an overview of key federal extortion laws, typical sentencing guidelines, and defenses that may apply. We’ll also share insights from criminal defense lawyers on representing clients facing extortion charges.
What is Extortion Under Federal Law?
The federal criminal code contains several statutes related to extortion, blackmail, and coercion under Title 18, Chapter 41 of the U.S. Code. Key laws include:
- The Hobbs Act (18 U.S.C. § 1951) – Broadly prohibits robbery or extortion that obstructs, delays, or affects interstate or foreign commerce. Extortion under “color of official right” is included, which means public officials cannot demand payment in exchange for performing their duties.
- 18 U.S.C. § 875 – Prohibits transmitting threats of violence through interstate communications like mail, telephone, or online to extort money or something of value.
- 18 U.S.C. § 876 – Prohibits mailing threatening communications with intent to extort.
- 18 U.S.C. § 880 – Prohibits receiving proceeds derived from extortionate threats.
To be charged under federal extortion laws, the extortionate conduct must have some connection to interstate commerce or involve misuse of public office. Threats of violence to person or property are commonly used to coerce victims.
Sentencing Guidelines for Federal Extortion
Sentencing for federal extortion depends on the specific circumstances of each case and is guided by the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines Manual. Key factors include:
- Base offense level – The base offense level for extortion under the Hobbs Act is 18 under Section 2B3.2.
- Loss amount – The greater the loss to the victim, the higher the offense level. The loss table is used to determine the increase.
- Victim-related adjustments – Increases apply if the victim sustained bodily injury (+2 to +6 levels) or if the victim was an official (+8 levels).
- Role in the offense – Aggravating role adjustments apply if the defendant was an organizer/leader (+4 levels) or manager/supervisor (+3 levels).
- Acceptance of responsibility – Pleading guilty early and accepting responsibility may reduce the offense level by 2-3 levels.
- Criminal history – Prior convictions may increase the criminal history score and raise the guideline range.
These factors result in a final offense level and criminal history category, which produces an advisory sentencing guideline range. For example, an offense level of 20 and criminal history I would have a range of 33-41 months. The judge has discretion to sentence within or outside the range.
Maximum Statutory Penalties
The maximum sentences set by federal extortion statutes are:
- Hobbs Act – 20 years imprisonment
- 18 U.S.C. § 875 – 20 years imprisonment
- 18 U.S.C. § 876 – 20 years imprisonment
- 18 U.S.C. § 880 – 20 years imprisonment
Fines up to $250,000 may also be imposed for individual defendants. Higher fines apply for organizations.
Key Defenses in Federal Extortion Cases
Although extortion cases can be challenging to defend, some possible strategies include:
- Duress – Argue the defendant only made threats due to threats against their own person or family.
- Entrapment – Claim the defendant was induced by government agents to commit extortion.
- Intoxication – Seek to show the defendant lacked intent due to voluntary intoxication.
- Mistake of fact – Argue the defendant had a reasonable but mistaken belief their actions were not illegal.
- Lack of intent – Fight to prove the defendant did not have intent to carry out threats or obtain property.
- Attack interstate nexus – Challenge whether the extortion truly impacted interstate commerce.
An experienced federal criminal defense lawyer can assess which defenses may apply in your specific case.
Insights from Defense Lawyers on Federal Extortion Cases
To gain more perspective, I spoke with several seasoned criminal defense attorneys who regularly handle federal extortion charges:
“With extortion cases, the alleged threats are obviously a key issue. We’ll review communications to see if they truly constitute criminal threats under the law or if there’s an argument they were simply impulsive words said in anger that weren’t necessarily meant to be carried out.”
“If there are recorded conversations, we’ll scrutinize the transcripts and audio to see if there are statements by the defendant that support defenses like entrapment or lack of intent. Many times the full context reveals a different story.”
For public officials charged under the Hobbs Act, we’ve had success arguing they never actually used their office to make demands, but were simply acting in a personal capacity outside the scope of their duties. This can defeat the ‘color of official right’ aspect.”
“You also have to dig deep into the defendant’s personal, financial, medical, and mental health history to construct the full picture. There may be explanations why the threats occurred that warrant leniency, even if a crime was technically committed.”
“Extortion cases often come down to the credibility of witnesses and quality of evidence, so we’ll study every document and transcript to find inconsistencies and opportunities to undermine the prosecution’s case.”
“Probably our strongest leverage is getting the defendant to cooperate with authorities early on against any co-conspirators. This shows acceptance of responsibility and can result in huge sentencing reductions and even avoidance of prosecution completely in some cases.”