Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Threats that can amount to extortion

R. v. Alexander (2005), 206 C.C.C. (3d) 233 (Ont. C.A.) the accused was convicted of extortion for a threat that was not otherwise criminal. In that case the accused’s wife was owed $7,000 by another women, M.M. The accused sent M.M. a draft of a letter explaining that M.M. was involved in “highly questionable ethical and moral conduct”. The accused explained to M.M. that if she did not pay the debt, the accused would send the letter to M.M.’s employer and M.M. would likely be fired. Sending such a letter would not, in the absence of a threat, be a criminal offence (although it may found an action for defamation if the claims were false), but the court found that the accused was guilty of extortion: A distinction between threats used to collect legitimate debts that is based exclusively on whether the conduct constituting the threat is in and of itself unlawful would undermine the rationale for the crime of extortion. The potential for a threat to overwhelm a person's free choice and compel that person to act in the manner dictated by the threat is not necessarily tied to the lawfulness of the conduct constituting the threat. Some threats, while not per se unlawful (e.g., the threat to disclose some despicable act from one's distant past), will have a much more coercive effect than a threat to do something which is in and of itself unlawful (e.g., a threat to trespass on property). (R. v. Alexander at para. 79). In R. v. McClure (1957), 118 C.C.C. 192 (Man. C.A.) the accused threatened to sell a story to a newspaper unless the victim paid the accused a sum of money ($200). The story would provide the details of the victim's recent criminal conviction on a charge of disorderly conduct, and publication of those details would likely harm the victim's standing in the community and his employment. In that case the threat and the demand taken together constituted powerful intimidation calculated to overcome the free choice of even the strongest person. The Manitoba Court of Appeal upheld the accused's conviction for extortion.

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