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What Is Legally Considered Blackmail?

According to Tennessee Code § 39-13-301, blackmail is defined as “threatening to expose or reveal the identity of another or any material, document, secret, or other information” that may cause someone to be subjected to:

  • Hatred
  • Contempt
  • Ridicule
  • Job loss
  • Financial ruin
  • Loss of social standing

In threatening the person, the blackmailer expects to receive money, goods, or services in exchange for their silence on the damaging information.

Consider this: Jack knows about Bob’s extramarital affairs. Revealing the information he has would ruin Bob’s relationship and social status. Jack tells Bob he’ll “stay quiet” if he pays him. That is blackmail.

Blackmail is a crime regardless of the validity of the information used. It is also a crime even if the blackmailer is threatening to reveal someone else’s criminal activity. For instance, if Jack knew about Bob embezzling money at work and used that information to get monthly “hush money” from Bob rather than reporting him, it would be classified as blackmail.

Other common forms of blackmail include:

  • Cyber-blackmail (or ransomware), which involves someone obtaining intimate photos or videos of a person by accessing their webcam, developing an online relationship, or theft, and then threatening to publish the content
  • Threats of defamation, which can include threats to ruin someone else’s reputation by spreading false information
  • Threats of action, which can include threats to take action (like selling or sharing information or filing a baseless lawsuit) to force the blackmailed person to meet their demands

Famous cases of blackmail include:

  • In 2019, lawyer Sam Kelly and Mark Morgan were arrested after an investigation revealed that they tried to extort a man for $25,000. The duo allegedly threatened to share damaging information with the police about the victim’s family. In October, Morgan pled guilty to his charges.
  • In 2019, Jeff Bezos, the founder and executive chairman of Amazon, accused American Media Inc. (the company behind The National Enquirer) of blackmail and extortion. After published text messages supposedly revealed that Bezos was involved in an extramarital affair, Bezos claims that the company threatened to publish more text messages and photos if he didn’t stop the investigation into the Enquirer.
  • In 2016, a Murfreesboro man became the victim of blackmail after he exchanged nude photos with someone online. Initially, the man believed he was interacting with an adult woman. However, after the photos were exchanged, the other user claimed to be a minor. The Murfreesboro man was then contacted by a man claiming to be the minor’s father. The supposed father demanded financial compensation unless the victim wanted the messages to be shared with the police.
  • In the early 1900s, Emily Post, author of Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics, and at Home, and her husband, Edwin, were embroiled in scandal after he was blackmailed. Edwin Post was a philanderer and gambler (when it came to stocks). A blackmailer threatened to expose one of Mr. Post’s extramarital affairs unless paid. Post refused to pay, and while his affairs were exposed, the blackmailer was also caught.

Extortion vs. Blackmail: What’s the Difference?

Typically, extortion involves using force, threats of violence, or other acts of harm to gain money, goods, or services. While extortion primarily involves violent force used to obtain money or goods, blackmail involves sensitive information. Most state laws combine blackmail and extortion under a consolidated theft crime, and how the crime is classified (as a crime against property or person) varies from state to state.

In Tennessee, blackmail is an offense against property. According to Tennessee Code § 39-14-112, someone commits extortion when they threaten another person to gain money, goods, services, or advantages and/or to unlawfully restrict their freedoms. This threat can be communicated in any way.

What Are the Legal Consequences of Blackmail?

With most white-collar crimes, the accused can face state and federal charges. In the state of Tennessee, extortion is categorized as a Class D felony. If convicted, a person faces 2 to 12 years of imprisonment and/or a fine of up to $5,000. Federally, blackmail is a misdemeanor punishable by up to 1 year in federal prison and/or a fine.

Legal Defenses to Blackmail Charges

When facing blackmail charges, the best line of defense you have is a reliable criminal attorney. As a legal defense, your attorney can seek to prove that:

  • There is a lack of evidence to support the charge(s)
  • The evidence to support the charge is inadmissible
  • The alleged offender lacked intent
  • The alleged offender acted under duress
  • The alleged offender lacked the capacity to commit the crime
  • Restitution or appropriate compensation for the harm done was reasonably claimed

Contact Our Criminal Defense Attorneys

If you’ve been accused of blackmail, you should immediately reach out to our criminal defense attorneys. At Eldridge and Cravens, PC, we have helped thousands of clients get their sentences reduced or dropped. You can trust our legal team to aggressively fight for you. With over 55 years of experience, you will benefit from having us at your side—we’re on your team.

To schedule a complimentary case evaluation, reach out to us via phone at (865) 544-2010 or by using our online contact form.