Is blackmail a crime?
Is Blackmail a Crime?
Blackmail is widely considered to be an unethical act, but is it actually illegal? The answer is – it depends. Blackmail laws vary by jurisdiction, but in general, blackmail occurs when someone threatens to reveal embarrassing information about a person unless money or something else of value is given to them.
What Constitutes Blackmail?
The basic elements of blackmail are:
- A threat to reveal damaging or embarrassing information about a person if they don’t comply with demands for money, goods, or services.
- The information being threatened to expose would likely subject the victim to hatred, contempt, ridicule, loss of employment, etc.
- The blackmailer makes an unwarranted demand with the intent for personal gain.
For example, if someone found out you cheated on a test and threatened to tell your teacher unless you gave them $50, that would be blackmail. The threat is to expose damaging information about you, the demand for money is unwarranted, and their intent is personal financial gain.Some key points about blackmail:
- The information being threatened to expose does not need to be illegal, just potentially damaging to the victim’s reputation or livelihood.
- The blackmailer does not need to directly request money – demanding any goods or services of value constitutes blackmail.
- The victim does not need to actually comply with demands – the threat itself is blackmail.
- Truthfulness of the information is irrelevant – threatening to reveal true information can still be blackmail if the intent is unwarranted personal gain.
Is Blackmail a Crime?
Whether blackmail constitutes a crime depends on the jurisdiction. In the United States, both the federal government and individual states have laws prohibiting blackmail.At the federal level, blackmail is prohibited under the Hobbs Act, which bars interference with interstate commerce by threats of violence, property damage, or other unlawful means. Most states also have laws specifically banning blackmail.For example, California Penal Code 518 defines blackmail as “knowingly and maliciously” threatening to expose information about a person that would subject them to “hatred, contempt, ridicule” unless money or other value is delivered. Violating this law is a felony punishable by imprisonment.Most other states have similar statutes that criminalize blackmail by threat of exposure, though specific provisions vary. A few states, like New Jersey, do not have an explicit blackmail law but prosecute it under related extortion charges.So in summary – yes, blackmail is considered an illegal act under criminal law throughout most of the United States when the required elements are present. The consequences can be severe depending on the circumstances.
Defenses Against a Blackmail Charge
While blackmail is generally illegal, there are some potential defenses if charged with blackmail:
- Lack of malicious intent – Some states require blackmail to be done “knowingly and maliciously.” It may be argued that threats were not made with ill intent.
- Reasonable demands – Demands for money or actions were warranted and made in good faith, rather than for unwarranted personal gain.
- Threats to expose criminal activity – Threats to report someone’s criminal activity to authorities may be lawful in some cases. However, demanding money to stay silent would still likely be illegal.
- Disclosure of information in the public interest – Threatening to expose information like corruption or dangers to public health or safety could potentially be defended as whistleblowing, not blackmail.
- Misidentification – Argue that you are not the person who made the blackmail threats.
However, these defenses often have limits and varying success. The blackmail laws in an individual state would need to be reviewed to determine viable defenses in a specific case.Proving blackmail can also be challenging, as threats are often made verbally in private. Recording threats provides stronger evidence if available. Circumstantial evidence like bank withdrawals after threats could also bolster the case.
Examples of Real Blackmail Cases
While blackmail may seem like something that only happens in movies, real blackmail cases regularly occur:
- In a 2021 case, a New York man was charged with blackmail for threatening to send explicit photos of a woman to her employer unless she paid him $20,000.
- A Michigan man was convicted in 2020 of threatening to release secretly recorded videos of teenage girls unless they provided him more.
- The CEO of American Media, Inc., owner of the National Enquirer, was accused in 2019 of trying to blackmail Jeff Bezos with threats to publish his private photos.
- A 2021 case in the UK involved a student being blackmailed by an essay writing service that threatened to report him for cheating if he didn’t pay more money.
These cases illustrate blackmail takes place both digitally and in-person, by strangers and acquaintances. The consequences were severe – long prison sentences and for Bezos, implicating a major media company in crime.
Is Blackmail Ever Justified?
Given the immoral and often illegal nature of blackmail, it is generally not considered justified. However, some ethicists have debated hypothetical scenarios where blackmail could arguably be moral:
- To prevent greater harm – If blackmailing someone prevents them from committing worse acts like violence.
- To right injustice – If exposing information would remedy social or legal injustices that can’t be addressed otherwise.
- As self-defense – When threatening disclosure is the only leverage to stop threats or attacks against oneself.
- For mutual benefit – Both blackmailer and victim gain something from the transaction that outweighs societal drawbacks.
These arguments are controversial and tend to provoke counter-arguments about using lawful means for change, victimization of the blackmailed, and the likelihood of encouraging further unethical acts.Most experts conclude these hypothesized benefits are usually outweighed by the deception, exploitation, and social harms blackmail causes. It is an unethical means, even if seeking moral ends.
Blackmail, the unwarranted threat to expose damaging information for personal gain, is widely outlawed in the United States and prosecuted as a felony crime. The details of blackmail laws vary between states but share key prohibitions. Despite some theoretical arguments, blackmail is rarely if ever justified due to its deception, harm, and violation of autonomy. Real cases demonstrate blackmail’s damaging effects. While the internet has provided new means for blackmail, the underlying wrongs remain the same.