A recent state court criminal case here in Atlanta is very similar to a federal criminal case we handled in Savannah last year. In each case, one person made a demand against another person, and the demand arose out of civil litigation. Prosecutors in each case alleged that the “demand” was actually the crime of “extortion.” The recent case here in Atlanta was handled by our friend Brian Steel, who is an excellent lawyer. Just like in our case last year in Savannah, Brian got the charges dismissed against his client. You can read about the recent Atlanta case here.
These cases came about because of statutes (which some people refer to as “laws”) that make it a crime to engage in extortion. Generally, it is illegal to threaten another person and ask that person to pay you money in return for which you will take some action that benefits that other person. However, (and this is the big exception) it is NOT illegal to make such a threat (or “demand”) if you have every right to make such a claim. In other words, if someone damages your car, it is OK for you (or your lawyer) to send a “demand” to the person who wrecked your auto, seeking money, and threatening a lawsuit if they do not comply with the demand. It is NOT OK to send a demand if the person never caused you any damage at all.
The recent case here in Atlanta arises out of a very complicated situation involving a prominent man and his former domestic employee. The employee and her lawyers claimed that the prominent man engaged in improper sexual conduct which they would expose unless the man agreed to pay a settlement. It is no secret that certain people seem to have better access to the levers of power than others, and observers were not too surprised to discover that the District Attorney suddenly decided to bring extortion charges in State Court against the former employee and her lawyers for sending the demand letter. A judge recently threw these charges out, ruling that it is “over broad” to apply this extortion statute to a “demand” arising out of civil claims.
The case we won last year was in federal court in Savannah. Our client sued his former lawyer, and believed that he had information showing that his former attorney had lied during a deposition. The client asked for payment or he would release information about the lie and use the information in the ongoing civil case between the two men. The lawyer called the feds, and they ultimately arrested our client, charging him with the federal crime of extortion. We eventually convinced the U.S. Attorney to dismiss the charges, but not before our client had a lot of heartache and sleepless nights.
These are similar cases, but as always, there are differences. For one, the recent state court case will likely be appealed to a higher court by the prosecutors. On the other hand, in our case we were able to convince the prosecutors to simply drop the charges, for a variety of reasons. Each case shows that criminal defense lawyers need to be aggressive and creative when fighting for their clients.