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29 Nov 23

What Are the Penalties for Federal Blackmail Charges?

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Last Updated on: 14th December 2023, 04:45 pm

What Are the Penalties for Federal Blackmail Charges?

Blackmail—also known as extortion—is demanding money or something else of value from someone by threatening to expose damaging information about them. It’s illegal, both under state laws and federal law. So what happens if the feds catch and charge you with blackmail? Well, let’s break it down.
The main federal blackmail law is 18 U.S. Code § 873. This law says that if you threaten to rat someone out for breaking any federal law—and you demand money or something valuable in exchange for keeping quiet—you’ve committed a federal crime.
Specifically, 18 U.S.C. § 873 says:

Whoever, under a threat of informing, or as a consideration for not informing, against any violation of any law of the United States, demands or receives any money or other valuable thing, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than one year, or both.

Let’s break that down into plain English:
You threaten to report someone for violating federal law
You demand money or something valuable in exchange for not reporting them
You get charged with federal blackmail under 18 U.S.C. § 873
Seems pretty clear-cut, right? So what kind of penalties are you looking at if the feds catch and charge you?
Fines of Up to $100,000
One possible penalty for a federal blackmail conviction is fines. And we’re talking big fines here—up to $100,000, according to 18 U.S.C. § 873.
To put that into perspective, $100,000 is no joke. That’s several years’ salary for most people. Getting slapped with a fine that big could destroy your financial life.
So if you’re convicted of federal blackmail, you may well be looking at a massive fine that’ll take years to pay off. That’s on top of any other penalties the court imposes, too. We’ll talk about those next.
Up to 1 Year in Federal Prison
Assuming you don’t have six figures lying around to pay fines with, prison time is probably the bigger concern when facing federal blackmail charges.
The federal blackmail statute says you can get “imprisoned not more than one year” if convicted. One year behind bars is no joke.
Losing a whole year of your life to prison—not being free to live your life—is a huge deal. Your job, your relationships, everything gets put on hold while you serve your time.
And that’s if you only get the one-year maximum sentence. Some defendants get multiple years in prison for federal blackmail convictions, depending on the details of their case.
We’ll talk more about what impacts your potential sentence later on. But for now, just know that federal prison is very much on the table if you’re charged and convicted.
Fines AND Imprisonment
It’s also important to note the federal blackmail law says you can get both fines and imprisonment. The statute specifically says being “fined under this title or imprisoned not more than one year, or both” (emphasis mine).
So it’s possible to get slapped with huge fines and sent to federal prison for up to a year. That’s a devastating one-two punch when it comes to penalties:
Prison time takes away your freedom and puts your life on hold
Massive fines take away your financial stability for years
When it comes to federal charges, you really don’t want either penalty—let alone both. But if convicted of blackmail, you may very well end up with both.
What Impacts Your Sentence?
Okay, so now you know the possible penalties. But what actually determines how much prison time and fines you get if convicted? What makes the difference between getting the one-year maximum sentence versus just a few months behind bars?
Well, federal sentencing is complicated, but a few key factors matter most:
Details of Your Specific Case
Judges look at the details of your specific blackmail case when deciding on a sentence. Things like:
How much money did you try to extort?
What method did you use to threaten the victim?
Did you actually carry out any threats?
Details like these impact whether your case seems more or less serious. The precise amount you demanded or what you threatened matters.
Your Criminal History
If you have prior convictions—especially for other federal crimes—that makes you look like more of a danger and repeat offender. So you may get hit with a longer sentence for blackmail if you have a criminal history.
Acceptance of Responsibility
Judges also consider whether you take responsibility for your actions. If you admit guilt and express genuine remorse, you may get some sentencing leniency. But if you deny the charges or try to justify your actions, you’ll likely get hit harder.
Sentencing Guidelines
Federal judges use the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines to calculate recommended sentences based on the details of each case. The guidelines score different factors then suggest minimum and maximum sentences.
Judges use these guidelines to benchmark sentences. So your guideline score directly impacts how much prison time you get.
Mandatory Minimum Sentences
Some federal laws—including certain blackmail statutes—have mandatory minimum sentences. Like it sounds, these laws require a judge to impose at least the minimum prescribed sentence.
If the blackmail law you violated has a mandatory minimum sentence, then you’re guaranteed to get at least that much prison time.
So in summary, your individual case details, criminal history, conduct in court, sentencing score, and any mandatory minimum penalties all impact your ultimate sentence if convicted of federal blackmail.
What About State Blackmail Charges?
Up to this point, we’ve focused exclusively on federal blackmail charges—meaning charges brought under 18 U.S. Code § 873 or other federal statutes.
But most states also have their own blackmail and extortion laws. And you can face state charges—instead of or in addition to federal charges—depending on the circumstances.
State laws vary, but in general they make it illegal to threaten people while trying to obtain money or something else of value. Just like with federal blackmail, state blackmail convictions often carry fines plus prison time.
For example, under California’s blackmail law, you can get up to four years in state prison. The potential prison sentence is actually longer than under the federal blackmail statute!
So if state rather than federal authorities go after you, you may still end up with huge fines or years behind bars. The penalties can be just as severe under state blackmail laws.
Defending Against Blackmail Charges
If you’ve been accused of blackmail—whether under federal or state law—getting an experienced criminal defense lawyer is crucial. An attorney can review the charges against you and start building your defense strategy.
Possible defenses in blackmail cases include:
You Didn’t Actually Threaten Anyone
What you said or did may not have been an actual threat. Without a genuine threat, there’s no blackmail.
You Didn’t Demand Anything Valuable
Blackmail requires demanding money or something else of value. If you didn’t make any unlawful demands, then it’s not extortion.
It Was Just a Misunderstanding
You may not have intended your words as blackmail. And the “victim” may have misunderstood what you meant. An innocent mistake isn’t a crime.
You Have a Legal Right to the Payment
If you have a lawful right or claim to the money or property you demanded, it may not be illegal blackmail.
As you can see, an experienced lawyer can often punch holes in blackmail cases and get charges reduced or dismissed. So don’t delay in seeking legal defense help if accused of extortion.
The Takeaway – Blackmail Is Serious
The bottom line is that blackmail and extortion are considered serious crimes—both federally and at the state level. If convicted, you may well face fines in excess of $100K plus prison time.
The exact penalties depend on your case details and history, but just the federal one-year maximum prison sentence is hugely significant. And the potential consequences get even worse if state authorities charge you under local blackmail laws.
So if you’re ever tempted to make threats and demands for money, don’t! And if you find yourself accused, consult an attorney immediately to explore your defense options. An extortion conviction can derail your finances, freedom, and future in one devastating blow.