I am a total layman and I don't have any experience in the field of law. Please keep this in mind when responding to this question.

Obviously blackmail is illegal. However, I have always wondered how exactly this would work in a real world scenario. I was wondering if any lawyers could chime in.

Lets say I killed someone, or my company is committing massive fraud/tax evasion. If someone threatens to reveal my dark secrets unless I help them do something, then this would be considered blackmail.

So what? What could I even do in this scenario? Report them to the police and go down in flames together? What are the practical implications of blackmail being illegal?

  • As far as I know, blackmail isn't actually illegal in most parts of the US (I would need to do more reading on it). It's actually prosecuted under some type of extortion charge. Yes, there is a difference between the two, be it small, it's still there. – User37849012643 Oct 8 '20 at 9:31
  • I think there is a short story by Jeffrey Archer, about a couple blackmailing some very harmless and very shy guy, who has received multiple war medals for removing land mines, so he would know everything about bombs. And by an incredible incidence, that blackmailing couple is killed by a bomb that goes off in their home. – gnasher729 Oct 8 '20 at 15:34
  • Law professor Eugene Volokh has written about the "blackmail paradox"; the difficulty of writing a law against blackmail which still allows one to e.g. threaten legal action against someone who owes you money. volokh.com/2012/08/21/blackmail – Paul Johnson Oct 9 '20 at 15:32

Canadian law defines a crime of extortion, but not blackmail. An alternative theory of "blackmail" is that it is coercion. This is the law against extortion in Canada. We start with the definition of extortion, §346 (1)

Every one commits extortion who, without reasonable justification or excuse and with intent to obtain anything, by threats, accusations, menaces or violence induces or attempts to induce any person, whether or not he is the person threatened, accused or menaced or to whom violence is shown, to do anything or cause anything to be done.

To simplify, one person makes another person do something using threats, accusations or violence and doesn't have a good reason to do so. A parent can altruistically threaten to write a child out of their will if the child doesn't stop taking heroin: that's a good reason, so that is not extortion. If you threaten to turn a murderer in to the police unless they give to $1,000, that is extortion. However, the law also provides that "A threat to institute civil proceedings is not a threat for the purposes of this section". It is legal to threaten to sue the pants off of a person if they don't settle for some cash reward.

The wording of the law is very broad and it's not obvious from the wording of the statute where the line is drawn. These guys give a number of examples of acts leading to convictions:

A teenager who said he would bring an AK-47 to school and shooting people unless he was compensated for his damaged vape;

A man who was found to have implied violence by asking for money and stating that ‘things will get a lot worse’, and ‘if you can’t pay with money you’ll have to pay with something else’ if he didn’t receive it;

Three men who were accused of threatening, harassing, intimidating, and extorting a man who tried to start a new chapter of a Montreal-based Motorcycle club;

A man who allegedly committed acts including arson, telephone threats, molotov cocktails, and paintball-gun shootings against his former business associates;

A man who threatened to post nude pictures of people on social media unless paid;

A man who pretended to be a photographer and threatened to send nude pictures to family or pornorgraphic magazines unless sexual favours were granted;

A person who threatened to sell a story to a newspaper unless the victim paid a sum of money (the story regarded the victim’s recent conviction);

A woman who threatened to send a letter to another woman’s employer unless the other woman repaid a debt she owed

As they say, "the threat must go beyond what a reasonable person in the accused’s situation would view as a legitimate means": the issue is dealt with on a case-by-case basis.

In case you murder someone or commit tax fraud, and another person threatens to turn you in if you don't {pay them / mow their lawn}, the law takes the position that you should turn yourself in, provide the evidence to the police, and the police will prosecute the other person for extortion. There is no "I was blackmailed" get out of jail defense.

One practical implication of the law is that you can't extort a person because they committed a crime: instead, you are expected to just turn them (and the evidence) in to the police – that's your civic duty. You can also hold your tongue: what you can't do is extort the other criminal.

  • So if I found out some company was committing massive accounting fraud, I can threaten to launch a civil suit unless I was handsomely compensated - and this would not be considered blackmail? – AlanSTACK Oct 8 '20 at 20:48
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    Yes-ish, you can say it. The problem is that you cannot actually sue the company (I assume you're not withholding facts), and the company will know that, so it's an empty threat. You can sue them if they have harmed you, but not if you just dislike them. If they cheated you out of money via some fraudulent accounting scheme, you can offer to waive your right to sue in exchange for a bag of money (they would also demand non-disclosure, I imagine). – user6726 Oct 8 '20 at 21:05
  • "you are expected to just turn them (and the evidence) in to the police – that's your civic duty" — isn't this false? There seems to be no general duty as such barring some exceptions. – Greendrake Oct 9 '20 at 0:10
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    A civic duty is not a legally enforceable duty. – user6726 Oct 9 '20 at 0:14
  • @AlanSTACK Why would you sue a company for something they did to someone else? (assuming you're not a shareholder of the company, or the government, in which case they did it to you) – user253751 Oct 9 '20 at 11:36

Blackmail is broader than you think

I’m going to use the definition in s249K of the Crimes Act 1900 which I know is in niether nor the but the definition will be close enough for this purpose:

(1)  A person who makes any unwarranted demand with menaces—

(a)  with the intention of obtaining a gain or of causing a loss, or

[b)  with the intention of influencing the exercise of a public duty, is guilty of an offence.

So blackmail is making a threat and while the classic threat in fiction is the threat to reveal unethical, immoral or illegal activities on the part of the victim, while that would be blackmail, that’s not inherent in the crime.

For example, the following are all blackmail if they are making an unwarranted demand:

  • a Union (or employer) threatening unlawful industrial action.
  • an employer threatening an employee with unlawful dismissal or reduced shifts
  • a professor threatening to give a student a lower grade

In none of those has the victim done anything wrong that the blackmailer is threatening to reveal.

That said, this is always a difficult crime to prosecute. Like domestic violence, the victim is usually in an inferior power position (you can’t really threaten someone more powerful than you) and the crime can be unwitnessed except by the victim.

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