Extortion & Promises

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In State v. McClure, the WA Court of Appeals held that extortion was satisfied by evidence that the defendant attempted to obtain valuable intangible property – a promise from the victim that he would not pursue criminal charges or a civil remedy against the defendant for the damaged property.

BACKGROUND FACTS

In late 2013, Williams and McClure entered into an agreement under which McClure would reside in a double wide trailer Williams owned that needed repairs. McClure would perform the repairs. In return, he would live in the trailer rent free for one year and then he would start paying rent. After a year, Williams contacted McClure and told him that if he did not pay rent, Williams would evict him.

McClure responded by threatening to destroy the trailer if Williams evicted him.

McClure did not pay his rent and Williams began the eviction process. Williams visited
the trailer on the day McClure was to be evicted and discovered that the sliding glass door, the front door, the kitchen cabinets, and the wood stove had been removed. In addition, pipes were ripped out of the ceiling and electrical lines had been cut. Williams contacted the sheriff.

A few days later, Williams returned to the trailer and observed people on the property who were removing siding, electrical wire, plumbing, appliances, and fixtures from the trailer and portions of his shed. A deputy sheriff informed Williams that someone had taken out a Craigslist ad inviting people onto the property to take what they wanted. Williams sent a text message to McClure asking him to remove the ad. McClure texted a response:

“I will pull the ads if you take a letter . . . signed and notarized by both you and Lisa (Williams’ wife) that will not allow any charges to be placed against me or my wife for
anything related to the property. I don’t need the hassle. I will also not have the signs placed that I made for the same purpose.” After Williams again asked McClure to remove the ad, McClure texted, “A simple letter will take you 15 minutes and it will be done.”

The State charged McClure with first degree extortion and first degree malicious
mischief. A jury convicted him of both charges.

LEGAL ISSUE

McClure appeals only his first degree extortion conviction on the issue of whether that “promise” sought by the defendant  constituted valuable intangible “property” supporting an extortion conviction or merely involved coercion under RCW 9A.36.070 – Williams abstaining from conduct that he had the legal right to engage in.

ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The Court of Appeals reasoned that under RCW 9A.56.120(1), a person is guilty of first degree extortion if that person commits “extortion” by means of specific types of threats. “Extortion” means “knowingly to obtain or attempt to obtain by threat property or services of the owner.” “Property” means “anything of value, whether tangible or intangible, real or personal.”

It further reasoned that McClure clearly was seeking a promise to not pursue criminal charges for a crime that involved financial loss to Williams – the cost of repairing damaged property. As a victim of a crime under RCW 9.94A.753(5), Williams would have the ability to receive restitution in a criminal proceeding for the property damage McClure caused.

“This ability to receive restitution for property damage had value to Williams,” reasoned the Court of Appeals.

Furthermore, McClure also arguably was seeking a promise not to pursue any civil remedy for the property damage McClure caused. That is how Williams interpreted the threat. He testified that McClure demanded Williams’ agreement “not to hold me responsible or press any charges for the damage that was done to your property.”

Finally, the Court of Appeals reasoned that this ability to hold McClure responsible for the property damage in a civil lawsuit had value to Williams:

“A reasonable jury could have inferred from the evidence that McClure was attempting to obtain something intangible that had value – Williams’ promise not to pursue compensation for the property damage that McClure caused.”

Accordingly, the Court of Appeals held that the State presented sufficient evidence to support McClure’s conviction for first degree extortion.