Federal Agent in Silk Road Drug Case Pleads Guilty to Extortion (18 U.S. Code, Chapter 41)

Normally, undercover DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency) agents are careful not to get too close to the crimes that they are attempting to bring to light.  While undercover, however, the lead investigator in the Silk Road drug case, in which bitcoins were exchanged for drugs, has pled guilty to attempting to profit from his involvement with the case.  Prosecutors claim that last year, when the Silk Road site was gaining weight in the public eye, this individual agent sold his story to the movie company 20th Century Fox.

Californians will remember that the case involved a man named Ross Ulbricht, calling himself the ‘Dread Pirate Roberts,’ taken from the film “The Princess Bride.”  If it had been allowed to go through, he could have made as much as $240,000.  Of course, he signed the contract with the movie moguls without permission from the DEA, thus landing himself in the midst of a legal battle over such potential profits. More than this, he used his influence as an undercover agent to steal approximately $500,000 from the Dread Pirate Roberts and others.  He stands accused of federal extortion.

18 U.S. Code, Chapter 41 addresses extortion and threats, generally.  Although the maximum possible federal sentence in typical cases such as these is about 20 years for each count, it is likely that the DEA agent will spend no more than 7 years in a federal prison facility.  What the public finds more disturbing is that these crimes were perpetrated by a member of law enforcement, not a hardened criminal.

Pacific Grove Policeman Sentenced for Federal Extortion (CA Penal Code 518)

A former police officer associated with the Pacific Grove Police Department has been sentenced to over 2 years in federal prison and been fined upwards of $15,000 for his part in extortion, fraud (CA Penal Code 518), possession of stolen guns, and the abuse of his position as an officer of the law.  Although it sounds like a scene right out of a gangster movie full of ‘dirty’ cops, the true story is a bit more complicated.

It seems that the former law enforcement official first asked a woman who was a stalking victim to hire him to investigate the case on his own, taking upwards of $10,000 for the work, which prosecutors claim he never followed through with.  Then, in a separate matter, while a police academy instructor at Monterey Peninsula College, he brokered an arrangement between the police department and the school by which the school would donate certain firearms to the department.  As it turns out, he did not realize that it was against the rules, not only to organize such a donation, but also to accept the guns at all.

At trial, prosecutors argued that the guns never made it to the Pacific Grove Police Department, but were, instead, sold for profit by the former officer.  The charges against him included:  keeping an individual from reporting an important crime (the stalking victim), being an accessory after the fact in a theft and/or burglary, and being an accomplice in the burglary of a business.  He also admitted to federal charges of extortion, wire fraud, and to possessing stolen firearms.  Pursuant to the various and myriad violations of the law he was convicted of, he was sentenced to 30 months in federal prison (for the most recent charges), which he will serve concurrently with the sentence the state has already handed down, and has been ordered to pay $10,000 in restitution and $5,000 in fines.


Revenge Porn Owner Sentenced to 18 Years for Identity Theft and Extortion (CA Penal Code 530.5 and 518)

Neither prosecutors nor defense attorneys were ever asked to deal with a case of its kind, a 28-year-old man who operated a site that allowed disgruntled exes to post embarrassing photographs of their former partners on the web, usually, this meant nude photographs, names, and other personal information.  When he was first arrested in December of 2013, it was difficult to determine what the charges would be, exactly.  Recently, however, he has been found guilty of 21 counts of identity theft and 6 counts of extortion.  So, how were prosecutors able to turn the operation of a ‘revenge porn’ site into identify theft and extortion?  Let’s take a look at the applicable laws.

California identify theft laws (CA Penal Code 530.5) normally apply to the usage of personal information for the purposes of committing fraud.  Typically, this means the theft of credit card information, social security numbers, and the like in order to purchase items and services without permission.  However, the law concerning identity theft is actually far broader.  To be sure, identity theft is most commonly for the purpose listed above, but it can also be used in order to cause emotional, not financial, harm.  Thus, when the photographs were posted online, along with identifying information, they caused emotional harm and, thus, loss of a certain kind.  Penalties for felony identity theft charges can be as high as 3 years in county jail and a $10,000 fine.

Extortion, otherwise known as blackmail, on the other hand (CA Penal Code 518) involves coercing someone to do as you wish them to do under threat of some unwanted consequence.  In the case of revenge porn, you might be wondering how it relates to blackmail, as the photographs are already up for the world to see.  It seems that another, second, site was created, one that offered victims of revenge porn the opportunity to pay a sum (usually $300-$350) in order to have their photographs taken down.  In California, most extortion cases are treated as felonies and penalties can range from 2 to 4 years in county jail and $10,000 in fines.  In the above case, because there were so many different counts, the revenge porn site runner was eventually sentenced to 18 years.


Two San Francisco Officers Accused of Extortion (CA Penal Code 518)

Beyond the recent bouts between peaceful protestors and police in SF, the city is currently awaiting the verdict in another police corruption case.  Two long-time SF police officers (names withheld to protect the accused’s privacy) are now in the midst of trial proceedings against them for having allegedly made use of their confidential informants (commonly known as “CIs”) to commit crimes instead of preventing them.  The charges in the case all relate to the theft of drugs, property, and cash that were discovered or used during the course of what was meant to be the investigation of crime scenes and to allegations of mafia-style extortion.  The eyewitness testimony of several different persons involved in the case seems to corroborate the story of the CI who is the star witness for the prosecution.

The theft or misuse of monies, etc. gained from an investigation may be one matter, but extortion is another.  According to California Penal Code 518 (“Extortion and Blackmail”), the crime of extortion involves the use of either threats or of force to coerce another person into giving you money or property.  Usually, this particular violation of the law is treated as a felony.  Penalties include up to 4 years in county jail and a $10,000 fine.  What happens, however, when the person who is extorting or blackmailing another is supposed to be a respected member of the community, like a law enforcement agent?  The result could be a further lack of trust in the police to act as responsible citizens and in the system as a whole.