Nova Scotia·Q&A

What it takes to prove blackmail in Canada

Blackmail is hardly a run-of-the-mill offence in Nova Scotia. But that's just the allegation Steve Sampson, a Richmond County councillor, made last week.

As indictable offence, it could have very serious consequences for perpetrator

Lawyer Stephanie Myles explains how blackmail is described by the Criminal Code. (Hal Higgins/CBC)

Blackmail is hardly a run-of-the-mill offence in Nova Scotia.

But that's just the allegation Steve Sampson, a Richmond County councillor, made last week when he said he received an unsigned letter noting a phone call he had made to a male escort service during a trip on municipal business.

The writer allegedly threatened to expose the councillor if he did not quit politics. Sampson instead went to the RCMP and then held a news conference.

Because we rarely hear about this kind of criminal allegation, CBC Cape Breton's Information Morning asked Stephanie Myles, a lawyer with LaFosse MacLeod in Sydney, for a legal primer on blackmail.  

Here's part of her conversation with host Steve Sutherland.

Sutherland: What is it? What's blackmail?

Myles: It's called extortion in the Criminal Code, and there is one section in the code that deals with this. It's essentially when a person tries to gain something by threatening another person, and those threats are meant to induce that other person to do something.  

So you're essentially trying to coerce someone into doing something — to get something for yourself. So what the code is really trying to do is to criminalize intimidation and interference with freedom of choice.

Possible penalties

Sutherland: So does this sound like blackmail to you?

Myles: The way that it has been described it does. Obviously I don't have any more information than has been publicized by Mr. Sampson, but it certainly seems to fit within the section of the code.

Sutherland: What kind of penalties are there for extortion?

Myles: For this particular offence the Criminal Code does say that life imprisonment is a possibility. There are some mandatory minimum sentences; for example if a firearm is used there's a mandatory minimum sentence of four years. So it's pretty serious.

Sutherland: Does it make any difference that it's a politician, that it's someone elected to public office?

Myles: No, it does not matter if the victim is a political figure or a regular person.

Sutherland: Would there be any extenuating circumstances because you're trying to influence someone in public office. You're not just influencing someone's personal choice — you're influencing somebody that could effect public policy, the course of democracy? Does that matter?

Myles: For the purpose of the crime it doesn't matter. It may affect, for example, sentencing — who knows?

What to prove

Sutherland: The judge may say because of this ...

Myles: Who knows? But sentencing is also a very offender-specific process so it would depend on other factors specific to the accused person.

Sutherland: What did you think when you heard this last week?

Myles: I think that he did the right thing in going to the RCMP. It is the role of the police to investigate and determine whether they can identify a person who has done this and whether they can be charged with this offence. And also from a practical perspective it also takes the force out of the threat.

Sutherland: So what do you have to prove if you're going to prove this extortion in this particular case?

Myles: Well, if somebody is charged with this offence it is on the Crown to prove beyond a reasonable doubt, because it is a criminal offence, that the accused person has induced or attempted to induce someone to do something, and they've used threats or violence, and they've done so with the intention of obtaining something by the use of these threats.

Sutherland: And first you have to find the person who left the envelope.

Myles: Yes, that is the key. You have to have somebody to charge with the offence first.

With files from CBC Cape Breton's Information Morning

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