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Woodward v. State

    Brief Fact Summary.

    Defendant appealed a conviction of extortion when the judge refused to instruct the jury on a claim-or-right defense.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law.

    A person who obtains property by threatening physical injury upon another may not defend against a charge of extortion by establishing a claim of right to the property.

    Facts.

    Michael Woodward’s (Defendant) wife loaned $8,000 to Mike Lyle. To pay back the loan, Lyle went to the bar at which Woodward’s wife worked and, upon finding that she was not there, left the money with George Cooper, who agreed to give the money to Woodward’s wife. However, instead of giving the money to Woodward’s wife, Cooper kept the money. After Woodward learned that Cooper had kept the money, Woodward demanded that Cooper pay the money, threatening to break Cooper’s legs if Cooper did not. Cooper told police of the threats, and Woodward was arrested shortly afterward. Woodward was charged with extortion in violation of Alaska’s extortion statute, Alaska Stat. § 11.41.520(a)(1), which defines extortion as obtaining the property of another by threatening that physical injury will be inflicted upon someone. The statute includes seven types of threats that constitute extortion and outlines a limited claim-of-right defense for the three types of extortion where the property at issue was obtained by a threat of accusation, lawsuit, or other invocation of official action. At trial, Woodward requested a jury instruction for acquittal if the jury found that Cooper actually owed Woodward the money that Woodward demanded. The trial judge refused the instruction and instead told the jury that Woodward’s claim of right to the money held by Cooper was not a defense to the extortion charge. Woodward was convicted. Woodward appealed, objecting to the jury instruction and also arguing that, because the money Woodward was seeking to recover was his own, the money was not property of another, as required by the extortion statute.

    Issue.

    Whether a person who obtains property by threatening physical injury upon another may defend against a charge of extortion by establishing a claim of right to the property.

    Held.

    No. The trial court’s ruling is affirmed. A person who obtains property by threatening physical injury upon another may not defend against a charge of extortion by establishing a claim of right to the property.

    Discussion.

    The Model Penal Code’s proposal that a person who obtained property by threatening physical injury be allowed to defend against a charge of extortion by establishing a claim of right to the property is the minority view. The majority view is that extortion is a crime against a person, not against property. Therefore, a person accused of extortion by threats of physical injury may not assert, as a defense to the charge, a claim of right to the property that was the subject of the extortion. Alaska adheres to the majority view. Therefore, because Defendant was charged with extortion, he was not entitled to assert his claim of right as a defense to the charges. Furthermore, the property for which the defendant has a claim of right must be a specific property, not money or other fungible property.


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