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What is Sextortion in California? Charges and Penalties, Explained

What is Sextortion in California

In our digital world, nothing is truly private anymore. Intimate photos and videos can easily end up in the wrong hands through hacking, betrayal of trust, or simple carelessness. And when someone tries to leverage that private content for personal gain through extortion, they commit a crime called sextortion.

In California, sextortion falls under the umbrella of extortion laws outlined in California Penal Code 518. This section defines extortion as obtaining money, property, or official acts through “wrongful use of force or fear.”

This law specifies extortion as:

  • Obtaining money, property, or other consideration from another person
  • With that person’s consent
  • Through the wrongful use of force or fear

However, sextortion represents a form of extortion where the “consideration” being demanded involves sexual acts or conduct and intimate visual content like photos/videos of an intimate body part.

Where Sextortion and “Revenge Porn” Intersect

Many sextortion cases also involve California’s laws prohibiting “revenge porn” – the non-consensual distribution of intimate images or videos. This act is illegal under California Penal Code Section 647(j)(4), which makes it a crime to intentionally share explicit material depicting someone’s intimate body parts or sexual acts if there was an understanding, the content would remain private.

In sextortion scenarios, offenders will often leverage the threat of disseminating revenge porn content as a means to their extortive ends. They might demand money, sexual favors, or other benefits while menacingly claiming they’ll widely distribute intimate videos or images otherwise. As such, extortion cases involving revenge porn elements can open the door to additional charges and enhanced penalties.

Penalties for Sextortion in California

Sextortion is classified as a felony in the state of California. For those convicted, you could be facing:

  • Felony charges
  • A prison sentence of 2, 3, or 4 years in county jail
  • Fines up to $10,000

Even unsuccessful attempts at sextortion can carry criminal liability under California’s “wobbler” laws. Attempted sextortion penalties include:

  • Up to 3 years in state prison for a felony violation or a year in county jail if charged as a misdemeanor
  • A fine of up to $10,000
  • Or both

California’s sextortion laws explicitly exempt situations where the perpetrator demanding sexual content is under 18 years old. Penal Code 518 does not consider those instances as criminal extortion. Instead, they may be penalized under sexting or child pornography laws.

Defending Against Sextortion Charges

If you or a loved one is facing sextortion allegations, it’s natural to feel overwhelmed and uncertain about what lies ahead. But it’s crucial to know that where there are charges, there are also potential defenses that an experienced attorney can leverage.

At The Nieves Law Firm, our legal team has pioneered numerous strategies for poking holes in sex crime cases and avoiding convictions. While every case is unique, some of the defenses we explore include:

Lack of Criminal Intent

Not every communication involving intimate images or threats constitutes sextortion. To convict, prosecutors must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that you acted with criminal intent to extort. We can investigate the circumstances and argue that there was no malicious intent behind the alleged threats.

Coercion or Acting Under Duress

In some cases, defendants facing sextortion charges may have been victims themselves – coerced into making threats by another party through blackmail, intimidation, or abuse. If coercion can be proven, charges could be reduced or dismissed.


Law enforcement must operate within strict boundaries when investigating suspected sextortion crimes. If investigators used overly manipulative tactics to induce someone into making threats, that could constitute entrapment – a viable defense against charges.

Digital Evidence Flaws

Many sextortion prosecutions hinge on technological evidence like texts, emails, file transfers and metadata. But this digital evidence can often be incomplete, misleading or outright inadmissible. Our team has experience in analyzing and challenging digital forensics to undermine the prosecution’s case.

Suppression of Illegally Obtained Evidence

If investigators blatantly violated your rights through illegal searches, surveillance, or interrogation tactics, we can petition to have any improperly obtained evidence barred from being used against you.

These are just a few of the defense angles we explore based on the specific facts of each case. You can rest assured that our attorneys will leave no stone unturned in pursuit of the best possible outcome.

Don’t Go It Alone – You Need an Aggressive Legal Team

Facing down sextortion allegations without a skilled attorney is like strolling into the bullfighting ring unarmed. Potential penalties are simply too severe to leave anything to chance.

At The Nieves Law Firm, we’ve been battling sextortion and other sex crimes tooth and nail for years. We explore all possible strategies to give you the best chance of beating the charges or minimizing the consequences as much as legally possible.

We understand this is likely one of the most stressful experiences you’ve ever faced. But you don’t have to go through it alone. If you or a loved one has been accused of sextortion, reach out to us immediately to start forging your defense.

Author Bio

Jo-Anna Nieves is the Founder and Managing Attorney of The Nieves Law Firm, an Oakland criminal defense law firm she created in 2012. With more than 11 years of experience in criminal defense, she has zealously represented clients in a wide range of legal matters, including DUIs, domestic violence, expungement, federal crimes, juvenile law, motions to vacate, sex crimes, violent crimes, and other criminal charges.

Jo-Anna received her Juris Doctor from the Florida State University College of Law and is a member of the State Bar of California. She has received numerous accolades for her work, including being named a Super Lawyer Rising Star the past 8 years, the #12 Fastest Growing Law Firm in the U.S. by Law Firm 500 in 2019, and one of the fastest growing companies in the U.S. by Inc 5000 in 2023.

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