Michigan Supreme Court Holds Extortion Does Not Require Analysis of the Seriousness of the Act Under MCL 750.213

On April 3rd, 2014, the Michigan Supreme Court held that the crime of extortion does not require analysis of "the seriousness or significance of the compelled act" under MCL 750.213 and partially overruled two Michigan Court of Appeals decisions.

In People v Harris, Docket No. 146212, the Michigan Supreme Court first summarized the prior proceedings in the case:

James Early Harris, Jr., was convicted by a jury in the Saginaw Circuit Court, James T. Borchard, J., of extortion; carrying a dangerous weapon with unlawful intent; assaulting, resisting, or obstructing a police officer; and three counts of carrying a firearm during the commission of a felony. Defendant had agreed to pay Willie Neal $400 to fix the transmission on defendant’s truck. Neal began working on the truck in the driveway that defendant shared with a neighbor, but stopped when it began to rain. Upset by Neal’s refusal to work in the rain, defendant went into his house and returned with a gun. Defendant told Neal that he would “silence him” unless Neal resumed working on the truck or returned a portion of defendant’s down payment for the work. Neal refused, and defendant returned home. When police officers arrived, they found defendant in the driveway carrying a rifle. Defendant appealed. The Court of Appeals, JANSEN and RIORDAN, JJ. (O’CONNELL, P.J., concurring in part and dissenting in part), affirmed in an unpublished opinion per curiam, issued September 27, 2012 (Docket No. 304875). The Supreme Court granted defendant’s application for leave to appeal. 493 Mich 948 (2013)."

In affirming the Court of Appeals, the Supreme Court held that 

Under the plain language of the extortion statute, MCL 750.213, extortion occurs when a defendant maliciously threatens to injure another person with the intent to compel that person to do any act against his or her will, without regard to the seriousness or significance of the compelled act, overruling People v Fobb, 145 Mich App 786 (1985), and People v Hubbard (After Remand), 217 Mich App 459 (1996), to the extent that those decisions required that the act or omission compelled by the defendant be of serious consequence to the victim.

1. Under the plain language of the extortion statute, the crime of extortion is complete when a defendant (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 of Appeals decisions in Fobb and Hubbard, which held that the act demanded of the victim must have been of serious consequence to thevictim in order to convict a defendant of extortion, are contrary to the plain language of the statute.

2. A statute may be challenged for vagueness on three grounds: (1) that it fails to provide fair notice of the conduct proscribed, (2) that it is so indefinite that it confers on the trier of fact unstructured and unlimited discretion to determine whether an offense has been committed, or (3) that its coverage is overbroad and impinges on First Amendment protections. In this case, the key question is whether the extortion statute provides adequate notice to citizens regarding what conduct is prohibited and sufficient guidance to fact-finders in order to avoid arbitrary enforcement. The Legislature’s inclusion of a malice requirement in the extortion statute provides law enforcement, judges, and juries with an explicit standard for applying the statute. Only those threats made with the intent to commit a wrongful act without justification or excuse, or made in reckless disregard of the law or of a person’s legal rights, rise to the level necessary to support an extortion conviction. The plain language of the statute provides the trier of fact with sufficient guidance regarding the nature of the threat required for a conviction of extortion and also provides a person of ordinary intelligence a reasonable opportunity to know what conduct is prohibited so that he or she may act accordingly.

3. Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, there was sufficient evidence to justify a rational trier of fact in finding guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Defendant orally communicated a malicious threat to injure Neal, thereby satisfying the first two elements of statutory extortion, when he threatened to “silence” Neal while waving a gun. Defendant made the threat with the intent to compel Neal to undertake an act against his will, thereby satisfying the third element of statutory extortion.