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Followup to this question: Legality of "counter-blackmailing" with calling/reporting to the police

In it, an answerer provided two criteria for when blackmail is legal in the England and Wales jurisdiction:

(1)A person is guilty of blackmail if, with a view to gain for himself or another or with intent to cause loss to another, he makes any unwarranted demand with menaces; and for this purpose a demand with menaces is unwarranted unless the person making it does so in the belief—

(a)that he has reasonable grounds for making the demand; and

(b)that the use of the menaces is a proper means of reinforcing the demand.

I am now applying this to the more general act of extortion. I find proper means to be a bit vague here. Take the following scenario;

In my country (Norway), it is illegal to cut power to someone who isn't paying their electrical bills if a resident is a minor.

In a minor-free residence, a company making the threat "if you don't pay up, we will cut your power", satisfies (a) and (b). However, if they make the same threat to a residence that houses a minor, (a) is still satisfied. As for (b), I am not quite sure; is threatening to do something illegal an "improper" way of inforcing the demand? It wouldn't surprise me, but I interpreted "proper" more to mean, "the thing you're threatening to do is the best way of maximizing the likelihood that you get what you want". If this interpretation is correct, then it would be improper for the company to orally deliver the threat to a resident that is blind, deaf and at the moment of deliverance, without other people to relay the message. It is improper, because the use of the menaces weren't the best way; heck, not a way at all; to inforce the demand.

However, maybe legality is a criterium for the use of menaces to be proper? A threat requires there to be the promise of a harm or loss to a person or their property. However, when the person fail to pay the electrical bills, the electricity running to their house is no longer their property. So, when the company says they'll cut the power to this minor-housing residence, they aren't threatening them (since they don't own the electricity anymore), but they are saying that they'll do something illegal. Does the fact that the act of which they're saying they'll do is illegal, make their speech constitute threats, and thus their act constitute extortion?

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    Is your question about Norwegian law, or is it about "threats" (or extortion) under English law?
    – user6726
    May 12 at 20:01
  • @user6726 I only tagged with "Norway" since my example pertained to that country. Any jurisdiction is fine.
    – user110391
    May 12 at 20:40

1 Answer 1

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In Washington state, the term "threat" is defined as follows:

"Threat" means to communicate, directly or indirectly the intent: (a) To cause bodily injury in the future to the person threatened or to any other person; or (b) To cause physical damage to the property of a person other than the actor; or (c) To subject the person threatened or any other person to physical confinement or restraint; or (d) To accuse any person of a crime or cause criminal charges to be instituted against any person; or (e) To expose a secret or publicize an asserted fact, whether true or false, tending to subject any person to hatred, contempt, or ridicule; or (f) To reveal any information sought to be concealed by the person threatened; or (g) To testify or provide information or withhold testimony or information with respect to another's legal claim or defense; or (h) To take wrongful action as an official against anyone or anything, or wrongfully withhold official action, or cause such action or withholding; or (i) To bring about or continue a strike, boycott, or other similar collective action to obtain property which is not demanded or received for the benefit of the group which the actor purports to represent; or (j) To do any other act which is intended to harm substantially the person threatened or another with respect to his or her health, safety, business, financial condition, or personal relationships;

However, the illegality of a "threat" comes from specific statutes declaring a particular type of threat to be illegal, and a statute may require a narrower set of conditions, for instance RCW 9.61.160 which is a class B felony (second most severe degree) requires that a person specifically threaten to

bomb or otherwise injure any public or private school building, any place of worship or public assembly, any governmental property, or any other building, common carrier, or structure, or any place used for human occupancy...

A misdemeanor variety of threatening (legally subsumed under the rubric "harrassment") if you knowingly and without lawful authority threaten

(i) To cause bodily injury immediately or in the future to the person threatened or to any other person; or (ii) To cause physical damage to the property of a person other than the actor; or (iii) To subject the person threatened or any other person to physical confinement or restraint; or (iv) Maliciously to do any other act which is intended to substantially harm the person threatened or another with respect to his or her physical or mental health or safety

As it happens, in Seattle, it was until the end of February to evict a tenant for non-payment of rent: but it was not illegal to communicate an intent to evict (it was simply legally futile to do so). Such a communication doesn't fall within the scope of harrassment-type threats because it does not damage person or property, or to confine a person. A fanciful interpretation of clause (iv) is precluded because the "threat" must be "malicious", which by definition

import[s] an evil intent, wish, or design to vex, annoy, or injure another person. Malice may be inferred from an act done in willful disregard of the rights of another, or an act wrongfully done without just cause or excuse, or an act or omission of duty betraying a willful disregard of social duty

whereas the intent is plainly to collect past-due rent. The line would be drawn at a threat to physically eject a tenant (which is against the law).

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  • So I take it the company in my example is not doing something illegal, since although an actual cutting of electricity would be illegal, threatening to do so isn't? Or in general, threatening to do something illegal towards someone isn't necessarily illegal?
    – user110391
    May 13 at 15:50
  • Not necessarily illegal, although that might not be the case under Norwegian law. It depends on what the law is against "threats", and in what way it is "illegal" to terminate the power to a residence with a minor. E.g. where is that limit encoded?
    – user6726
    May 13 at 17:53
  • If I understand you correctly, whether it is an illegal threat depends if the illegality of the action is classified as anything satisfying (a) to (j) (or the equivalents in the given country) in the paragraph you quoted? If it is illegal, but not in the way mentioned in (a) to (j), then it is not an illegal threat, and thus threatening to do it is not illegal (though actually doing the threatened act of course would be).
    – user110391
    May 14 at 7:46
  • Also, as a semantic note, I am calling any promise of negative consequences upon the recipient as a threat, and if it is illegal, I call it an illegal threat. In law terminology, all threats may be illegal by definition, which would make a legal promise of negative consequences a non-threat, and which would make "illegal" in "illegal threat" redundant. Not sure if this is the case though, and it maybe it varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.
    – user110391
    May 14 at 7:49
  • While (a-j) probably subsumes most types of illegal threats across jurisdictions, US law strongly favors explicit definitions. Compare this to Norwegian Straffeloven, where as far as I can determine, trussel is never defined, it it taken to be obvious, but the various sections such as §111, §113, §139 etc. largely presuppose that "trussel" are necessarily illegal. This raises a linguistic question as to the extent of "true" – in English, clouds can threaten, I do not know if that is the case in Norwegian.
    – user6726
    May 14 at 16:17

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