Peter Griffin discovered his wealthy father-in-law Carter Pewterschmidt is having an affair in the “Welcome Back, Carter” episode of Family Guy.  Initially Peter keeps the discovery to himself because of a promise he made to Carter.  This understandably made for an exceptionally awkward meal with his in-laws shortly afterwards.  However, when he discussed it with his friends at the Drunken Clam Bar, they suggested he should capitalize on his new leverage over Carter.  Since Carter always treats Peter poorly, it didn’t take much to persuade Peter it was a good idea.  Emboldened by the realization he has Carter in a precarious position, Peter confronts Carter.  In exchange for not telling Carter’s wife what he witnessed, Peter demanded that Carter “do a lot of stuff for him.”  Carter concedes to Peter’s demand and  does what Peter says through the episode like use his limos for jousting and giving Peter his television.  Unfortunately, for Peter these are both criminal offense in all states.

The name for the chargeable offense associated with this crime depends on which jurisdiction Peter is located in when he commits it.  For example, if Peter committed this act in Rhode Island where the Griffin family resides, he may be charged with “Extortion” and “Blackmail” under R.I. Gen. Laws § 11-42-2. However, if the crime was committed in Kansas, Peter may be charged with “Blackmail” under Kan. Stat. § 21-3428.  Furthermore, if the jurisdiction was Louisiana, he may be charged with “Extortion” under La. Rev. Stat. § 14:66.  In the end does the name of the chargeable offense even matter?

While this may seem to be only a matter of semantics, it is a question that has made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.  In United States v. Nardello, the defendants lured prominent businessmen into a compromising homosexual situation and then threatened to expose the behavior unless payment was made.  Since the defendants crossed over state lines on numerous occasions while perpetrating this crime they were indicted with violations of the Travel Act.  The Travel Act makes it illegal to travel interstate with the intent to carry on any unlawful activity and thereafter perform (or attempt to) extortion in violation of a State law.  However, since Pennsylvania distinguished between “Extortion” and “Blackmail,” by requiring the defendant to be a public official in order to be guilty of “Extortion,” the district court dismissed the indictments.

The U.S. Supreme Court looked to the common law definition of Extortion.  It found, “at common law a public official who under color of office obtained the property of another not due either to the office or the official was guilty of extortion.”  Next, the Court noted how many States had expanded the crime to include acts by private individuals and in doing so applied different terminology to the crime.  It even found that “[a]t least one State does not denominate any specific act as extortion but prohibits appellees’ type of activities under the general heading of offenses directed against property.”  To resolve the issue, the Court looked to what actions Congress had intended to prohibit when passing the Travel Act.  It found the underlying activity the defendants were charged with equated to the actions Congress wished to curb.  Therefore, the Court reasoned it would frustrate Congress’ efforts to permit the charges to be dropped just because the particular State referred to the crime as something else.  After all, if the Travel Act was interpreted by the plain text, two defendants charged with the same federal crime for the same act would get differing results.  One of the defendants could go free while the other went to jail just because they were caught in two different states.  Thus, the Court interpreted the term Extortion in the Travel Act meant Extortion, Blackmail, and any other State crime as long as the underlying conduct was the same.

This doesn’t necessarily mean the same result will always occur.  Even today over forty years after Nardello there are many who distinguish between Blackmail and Extortion for different reasons.  One­­­­ legal scholar describes the difference between them as “[b]lackmail can only be an offer, not a threat; extortion can be only the latter.”  Another legal scholar describes the difference as “whereas extortion can potentially involve a threat to do anything that is deemed to be wrongful, blackmail involves one particular kind of threat—namely, to expose information that would be embarrassing to the one threatened.”  Furthermore a criminal defense attorney says “[t]he difference is that extortion requires an independent criminal act, and blackmail does not.”  As many legal issues are resolved by interpretation of word choice, this may be a subtle distinction to keep in mind.

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