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April 07, 2014

MSC finds “serious consequence” to the victim not required under extortion statute

In People v. Harris, the Supreme Court held that under Michigan’s extortion statute (MCL 750.213) the prosecution does not have to prove the defendant intended to compel an act that would cause “serious consequences” to the victim.  Because Harris threated Neal with a gun telling him to continue working on his truck, he orally communicated a malicious threat to injure Neal in order to compel Neal to act against his will (i.e., to work on the truck in the rain).  Accordingly, Harris was guilty of extortion.
 
The Court of Appeals upheld Harris’ conviction finding Harris had engaged in an act in which would cause “serious consequences” to the victim, as required by People v. Fobb, 145 Mich. App. 786 (1985).  Harris had paid Neal to repair his truck.  While Neal was working on the truck it began to rain at which point Neal stopped working.  Harris then got a handgun from his home and told Neal he would “silence him” unless Neal continued working.  A jury convicted Harris on all counts, including extortion.  The Court of Appeals rejected Harris’ argument that his threat did not compel Neal to act against his will and found Neal’s act would be a “serious consequence” even though he had already agreed to repair the truck.
 
The Supreme Court upheld Harris’ extortion conviction but overruled the requirement of People v. Fobb and People v. Hubbard, 217 Mich.App. 459 (1996), that the threat must entail a “serious consequence” to the victim. According to the court, a person commits extortion when he or she “(1) either orally or by a written or printed communication, maliciously threatens (2) to accuse another of any crime or offense, or to injure the person or property or mother, father, spouse or child of another (3) with the intent to extort money or any pecuniary advantage whatever, or with the intent to compel the person threatened to do or refrain from doing any act against his or her will.”  The Court stated that according to the plain language of the statute any act which causes the victim to act against his or her will satisfies the third prong, not just acts that entail “serious consequences” to the victim.  Further, by including the “serious consequences” requirement, the statute becomes vague and thus potentially unconstitutional.  Relatedly, the statute as-written is not unconstitutionally vague as “malice” is commonly understood, as is “any act against his or her will,” thus providing the trier of fact and defendant with the reasonable opportunity to know what conduct is prohibited. 
 
In short, when Harris threated Neal with a gun telling him to continue working on his truck, he orally communicated a malicious threat to injure Neal in order to compel Neal to act against his will (i.e., to work on the truck in the rain), and therefore committed extortion.

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