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What is the difference between extortion and theft?

If you're facing criminal charges, it's important to know exactly what charges are pending against you and what they mean. Even when they seem similar or when popular culture often confuses them, they may be very different.

Take, for example, the difference between assault and battery. People often use these words incorrectly, from a legal perspective. Battery means that someone suffered physical harm. Assault may just mean that the alleged perpetrator threatened the victim. If the victim thinks it is an honest threat with the potential to lead to physical harm, that's assault, in many cases, even if the perpetrator never touches the victim.

To see how this works, let's take a look at another example: the difference between extortion and theft.

Taking assets

Both crimes revolve around the taking of specific assets -- money or physical goods -- from the victim. The difference lies in the way that the person takes them.

With a theft, there is often an immediate physical threat. A man walks into a store, points a gun at the cashier, and tells them to put all the money from the drawer into a bag. The cashier understands that he or she will get shot if they refuse to comply, so they hand over the money. The thief then leaves. Even though they didn't harm anyone, the theft hinged on potential violent action at the moment.

Extortion takes a step back. The person still gets threatened with physical harm, but it is usually at some abstract future date. In response, that person hands over property or even makes regular payments to avoid an incident.

For instance, the same man walks into the store. He does not show the owner a gun, but he implies that he's carrying one. He sets a picture of the owner's spouse on the counter, with their home address written on it. He then says that he'll need monthly payments for "protection" for the store, the owner, their spouse and their kids.

The perpetrator may not directly tell the owner what will happen, but that implication is clear. The owner then makes these payments. Essentially, the man robs the store once a month, but he does not have to intimidate or threaten the shopkeeper with harm every single time. They just have an understanding.

A similar crime is blackmail. This happens when someone has damaging information about someone else -- information that a politician had an affair, for example -- and threatens to release it unless they get a payment. It could be a one-time payment or repeated payments.

Your charges, your options

As you can see, a lot of charges address very similar crimes, but they come with vastly different ramifications. As you look into your defense options, you need to know exactly what you're dealing with.

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