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People v. Fichtner

    Brief Fact Summary. Defendants are managers of a supermarket and are accused of obtaining money from a customer by the wrongful use of fear. A jury found them guilty of extortion.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. An individual who collects money by the use of fear induced by means of threats to accuse a debtor of a crime can be convicted of extortion even though he believed the debtor was guilty of the theft of an employer’s goods. It makes no difference whether the debtor stole any goods, or how much he stole.

    Facts. Defendant Fichtner is the manager, and Defendant McGuinness the assistant manager of a supermarket. In January of 1951, Defendants obtained $25 from Smith with his consent. The consent, however, was induced by a wrongful use of fear by threatening to accuse Smith of petty larceny. Smith testified that on the date in question he bought a number of items at Defendants’ store totaling $12, but left the store without paying for a fifty-three cent jar of coffee which he had concealed in his pocket. Defendants threatened to call the police unless Smith paid $75 and signed a paper admitting that over the course of several months, he unlawfully took merchandise from the store in that amount. Smith insists the only merchandise he ever stole was the jar of coffee and a sixty-five cent roll of bologna during the previous week. However, he signed the paper admitting he unlawfully took $50 worth of merchandise from the store. That night, Smith paid $25 in cash. The cash went into company f
    unds and Defendants never received any of the money. Defendants testified they saw Smith steal merchandise amounting to $5.61, and they believed during the months prior he had stolen merchandise totaling $75. They also claim that on the night in question, Smith freely admitted to stealing merchandise totaling $50 over the course of several months and that he signed a paper admitting thefts in that amount.

    Issue. Were the Defendants guilty of extortion even though Smith admittedly stole merchandise from the store?

    Held. Yes. The conviction is affirmed.
    The applicable statute reads: “extortion is the obtaining of property from another, with his consent, inducted by a wrongful use of fear.”

    Fear may be induced by an oral or written threat. The extortion statutes were intended to prevent the collection of money by the use of fear induced by means of threats to accuse a debtor of a crime.

    The Defendants’ “good faith” in enforcing payment of the money allegedly stolen is not a defense.

    Dissent. Judge Wenzel dissenting: If the Defendants acted without malice and in good faith, they are not guilty of the crime charged if they made an honest mistake. The necessary mens rea would be lacking. The Defendants were not acting in their own behalf. The acted on behalf of their employer in recovering what they believed was rightfully owed.

    Discussion. The law does not authorize the collection of existing debts by threatening to accuse the debtor of a crime, despite the fact that the debtor is in fact guilty. It does not matter whether the indebtedness for which a defendant demands repayment is one stemming from the crime for the prosecution of which he threatens the debtor, or is entirely independent and has no connection with the crime forming the basis of the accusation.


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