Mail Threatening Communication Laws and Penalties - 18 U.S. Code § 876
Under California law, it is a crime to threaten someone with harm under Penal Code 422 PC criminal threats law. It's also a crime to attempt to extort someone through threats or blackmail as defined under Penal Code 523 and 524 PC.
But if you use the United States Postal Service to issue such a threat, it could become a federal crime.
Mailing threatening communications under 18 U.S.C. § 876 is a serious offense that can carry harsh penalties if convicted. It is defined as the act of mailing or shipping any communication containing threats to injure someone else in any way.
Simply put, It's illegal under federal laws to use threats or extortion to compel someone to provide you with benefits or behave in a certain way towards you.
However, you could face charges under state laws if you engage in threatening or extortionate behavior. Federal charges are usually more severe than state charges and carry severe penalties.
Federal prosecutors have almost unlimited resources to conduct a criminal investigation and build their case against a defendant.
There are only specific types of extortion and threats filed as a federal offense listed under 18 U.S. Code Chapter 41.
These federal statutes list several federal crimes of extortion, communicating threats, and similar federal crimes, whether the communication is by wire or mail. Our Los Angeles criminal defense attorneys will review the relevant national laws below.
What Constitutes Mailing Threatening Communications?
Title 18 U.S.C. 876 details four specific ways in which using the mail to threaten someone is a federal crime:
- Using the mail to send a demand for ransom for a kidnapped person;
- Using the mail to attempt to extort something from a person under threat of kidnapping or injury;
- Using the mail to threaten to kidnap or harm another person (with no specific demands); or
- Using the mail to extort or blackmail a person (i.e., threaten to damage their property or reputation).
It's important to note that it doesn't matter if the intended person receives the communication; it only matters that the mail was used to send it. What makes it a federal crime is if:
- It is a letter or package addressed to someone;
- The letter or package contains a threat as described above; and
- The letter or package is deposited into the mail system with the intent that it be delivered.
The crime of “blackmail” is also commonly known as “extortion,” which is threatening to do something or disclose something that will in some way harm the potential victim of the threat.
Usually, the threat of potential harm is made in an attempt to obtain something of value, whether it is money, property, or some other type of tangible benefit.
It is a federal crime to use interstate or foreign communications defined under Title 18, U.S. Code § 875, or the use of the mail for threatening communications under Title 18, U.S. Code § 876.
A federal threat crime could also be prosecuted for violating federal law under Title 18, U.S. Code, § 873, blackmail.
When Is a Threatening Letter Prosecuted at the Federal Level Rather than the State Level?
The State of California has its law against sending threatening letters. Penal Code 523 PC makes it a felony offense to extort or blackmail another person by sending any written communication to cause injury, accuse someone of a crime, or release damaging information.
The law covers physical letters as well as ransomware. So if a threatening letter is sent in California, will it be prosecuted by the state or a federal crime?
The answer may differ from case to case, but generally speaking, it may be prosecuted at the state level if:
- The letter was sent by something other than U.S. Mail (e.g., by hand or by another delivery service); or
- If the letter wasn't sent across state lines; or
- The letter is not a ransom note (something not explicitly addressed in PC 523).
The most common extortion or threat prosecuted by a United States Attorney's Office is interstate communications occurring by wire transmissions, such as emails or text.
Mailing threatening communications that violated federal laws were more common a decade ago, but with technological advances with computers and internet communications, threats and extortion are now commonly communicated by interstate wire transmission rather than using the mail system.
The threat has to be an actual threat, and the potential harm can be economical. Still, it could also include damage to their reputation or any information that could negatively impact their business.
The alleged victim often initiates investigations of threatening communications. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), U.S. Postal Inspectors, U.S. Homeland Security, and the United States Secret Service will usually investigate complaints of threats or extortion.
What are the Federal Penalties?
Any conviction for mailing threatening communications may result in severe fines and prison time under the United States Sentencing Guidelines considering the recommended punishment range.
These calculations will depend on the base level of the particular guideline, along with enhancements for factors that address the seriousness of the incident.
The length and severity of the sentence depend on the severity of the offense itself:
- If the letter contains general threats of kidnapping or injury (with no demand) or is an attempt to extort or blackmail another with no threat of physical harm, the maximum penalty is five years in federal prison;
- If the letter described above is sent to a federal judge or another federal official, the penalty is increased to up to 10 years;
- If the letter is a ransom demand or attempted extortion under threat of kidnapping or physical harm, the penalty is up to 20 years in prison.
What Are the Related Offenses?
- Kidnapping (18 U.S.C. 1201): The act of seizing, abducting, or restraining another person for ransom or reward. Primarily prosecuted at the federal level when state or international boundaries are crossed. The penalty is up to life in prison;
- Ransom Money (18 U.S.C. 1201): Receiving, possessing, or disposing of money or property given as a ransom for a kidnapping victim—or knowingly transmitting or transferring ransom money on behalf of someone else. The penalty is up to 10 years in prison;
- Interstate Communications (Extortion) (18 U.S.C. 875): The use of interstate or foreign commerce to communicate a demand for ransom, a threat to kidnap or injure someone, or an attempt to extort or blackmail another;
- 18 U.S.C. 871 – threats against the President;
- 18 U.S.C. 872 – extortion by employees of the United States;
- 18 U.S.C. 873 – blackmail;
- 18 U.S.C. 877 - mail threatening communication from a foreign country;
- 18 U.S.C. 878 – threats and extortion against foreign officials;
- 18 U.S.C. 879 – threats against former presidents;
- 18 U.S.C. 880 – receiving the proceeds of extortion.
What Are the Common Defenses to Mailing Threatening Communications?
There are numerous defenses available to fight charges of mailing threatening communications. The most common are listed below.
Perhaps you didn't intend the mail item to be sent or received. For example, it might have been accidentally sent or misaddressed.
Perhaps you did not know the contents. To be convicted, prosecutors must show you knowingly mailed the threat.
If you sent the letter/package on behalf of someone else, for example, and you were unaware of the threat it contained, you didn't commit the crime.
Perhaps the contents were satirical. That is, they can't specify an actual or credible threat, and it should be clear to all parties that the sender didn't mean what they said.
Eisner Gorin LLP is based in Los Angeles County and provides legal representation for anyone charged with a federal crime in California and United States.
You can reach our office for an initial consultation by calling (877) 781-1570 or filling out our contact form.