California Gov. Jerry Brown this week signed into law a bill outlawing sexual extortion, marking the fifth state-level victory for a legislative campaign shepherded by an Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe public policy team.
Sexual extortion, also called “sextortion,” involves the threat of publicizing stolen or coerced sexual images in an attempt to blackmail victims. The criminal activity, which often targets minors, does not fall neatly under existing statutes that bar child pornography or so-called revenge porn.
Orrick has worked pro bono with the advocacy group Legal Momentum, formerly known as the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund, on a multiyear plan pushing for legislation in states around the country. Utah, Arkansas, Texas, Alabama and now California have adopted similar bills since January. Another bill is pending in Washington, D.C. Advocates plan to pursue legislation in 16 more states next year.
“We’re hoping to use the momentum generated by the bill’s passage in California, a real thought leader, to encourage similar legislation in other states,” said Analea Patterson, an Orrick litigation partner in Sacramento. “At some point we hope this becomes organic.”
California’s bill, SB 500, was backed by the Association of Deputy District Attorneys for Los Angeles County and several law enforcement organizations. The American Civil Liberties Union of California opposed SB 500, arguing that laws already on the books are sufficient to prosecute sextortion crimes. The California District Attorneys Association, an early supporter of the bill, also registered its opposition after the author of the legislation took late amendments to exempt juvenile perpetrators from the bill’s penalties.
A 2016 report by the U.S. Department of Justice called sextortion “by far the most significantly growing threat to children.” A Justice Department investigation, according to the report, found three livestreaming videos and chatroom used by offenders to lure children. The offenders then “coerced, bullied and blackmailed” more than 1,000 victims to share explicit content, according to the report.
A Brookings Institution report last year spotlighted the challenges in the prosecution of cases. “Another area in which current law looks deficient is at the state level. State prosecutors are among those who have done the most dedicated work in this area,” the Brookings report said. “But the data in aggregate strongly suggest that they are working with weak tools compared to their federal counterparts.”
Seventy-eight percent of reported sextortion victims are girls with an average age of 15, according to the the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.
“I am pleased that SB 500 will take the existing revenge porn law to the next level by punishing even the threat of distributing sexually explicit pictures to demand sex or more pictures,” said the bill’s author, Sen. Connie Leyva, D-Chino.
Cheryl Miller can be contacted at CMiller@alm.com.