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State v. Harrington

    Citation

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    Bloomberg Law

    Brief Fact Summary. Respondent was an attorney retained by a woman to secure a divorce from her husband. With the consent of his client, Respondent arranged to obtain evidence of infidelity by hiring a woman to lure the man into having sex with her. Thereafter, Respondent sent the man a letter making a private accusation of adultery in support of a demand for a cash settlement in the divorce.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. A demand for settlement in a civil action made with intent to extort payment, along with a malicious threat to divulge the wrongdoer’s criminal conduct against his will, constitutes blackmail.

    Facts. Respondent was an attorney hired by a woman named Norma Morin to obtain a divorce from her husband. Because Morin did not have any money, Respondent agreed to work on a contingent fee basis. The couple owned assets worth about $50,000, including a motel where they previously resided. With the consent of his client, Respondent arranged to obtain evidence of infidelity by hiring a woman to lure the man into having sex with her in one of the motel rooms. After the woman enticed Morin’s husband, Respondent entered the room and took pictures of them. Thereafter, Respondent sent Morin’s husband a letter making a private accusation of adultery in support of a demand for a cash settlement of $175,000 in the divorce. The letter also provided that any and all photographs would be returned to him and that Morin would not divulge any incriminating information about him to the Internal Revenue Service or the United States Customs Service. Furthermore, the letter stated a date by which Mori
    n’s husband should respond in order to avoid a nasty divorce proceeding in court. Respondent was convicted of blackmail.

    Issue. Did Respondent’s actions with regard to the content of the letter rise to the level of blackmail?

    Held. Yes. Judgment affirmed.
    The applicable statute outlines the crime of blackmail as: a situation where a person maliciously threatens to accuse another of a crime or offense, or with an injury to his person or property, with the intent to extort money or intent to compel the person so threatened to do an act against his will.

    Respondent claims his letter does not constitute a threat to accuse Morin of the crime of adultery, but is merely sought to bring an embarrassing divorce proceeding unless a stipulation could be negotiated. However, the statute is aimed at blackmailing, and a threat of any public accusation is as much within the reason of the statute as a threat of a formal complaint.

    The letter marked “personal and confidential” makes a private accusation of adultery in support of a demand for cash. In addition, an incriminating photograph was enclosed for the purpose of letting Mr. Morin know Respondent had all the necessary proof. Respondent also urges that the totality of the evidence does not exclude the inference he acted merely as an attorney to secure a divorce for his client on the most favorable conditions possible. However, the veiled threats concerning the divulgence of unseemly information to federal agencies exceed the limits of Respondent’s representation of his client in a divorce action.

    The evidence establishes that Respondent participated with preconceived design. The incriminating evidence which his letter threatens to expose was contrived. These factors are sufficient to sustain a finding that Respondent acted maliciously and without just cause.


    Discussion. The Respondent’s acts were done with the intent to extort a large contingent fee to his personal advantage. Ordinarily, an attorney is prohibited from receiving a contingent fee in a divorce action by the rules of professional conduct.


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