Senator Leyva: It’s Time to Criminalize ‘Sextortion’

SB 500 Protects Minors, Young Women, Others From Sexual Extortion

Thursday, February 16, 2017

SACRAMENTO – Senator Connie M. Leyva (D-Chino) today introduced legislation that will criminalize sexual extortion (sextortion) and ensure that victims are not further harmed by perpetrators.

Current law does not allow for full prosecution of sexual extortion crimes perpetrated over the Internet. In sexual extortion’s modern online form, perpetrators can obtain private and sexually explicit images of their victims by hacking into their computers or smartphones or by pretending to be friends or peers on social networking sites.  Perpetrators then use the threat of distribution of these images to demand sex, additional sexually explicit images, or money.  Presented with the threat that the images will be posted on the Internet or sent to friends or family, the victims—often teens and young women—comply with the perpetrators’ demands.

Sponsored by the California District Attorneys Association and Legal Momentum, SB 500 clarifies that extortion includes not only coercing the victim to hand over money or property, but also to coercion involving sexual acts and sexually explicit images.  This policy change does not replace other laws that might apply—including rape and sexual battery or laws specifically protecting minors—but rather strengthens the tools available to law enforcement and prosecutors to pursue these offenders.

“Sextortion is a very real threat to young women, men, children, families, and communities.  SB 500 will close this sexual extortion loophole that allows perpetrators to potentially evade legal consequences since this crime is not in state law.  Since California law does not currently allow for full or uniform prosecution of sextortion cases, these perpetrators oftentimes go unpunished or charged with lesser crimes,” Senator Leyva said.  “This vital public safety bill will ensure that sextortion is treated for the crime that it is.  As the Vice Chair of the California Legislative Women’s Caucus, I strongly believe that SB 500 takes the existing revenge porn law to its next vital step by punishing even the threat of distributing sexually explicit pictures to demand sex or more pictures.  Perpetrators rob their victims of their sense of safety and dignity when they threaten release of sexually explicit pictures, so I look forward to correcting this injustice in state law.”

According to a 2016 U.S. Department of Justice report, the department noted that “sextortion is by far the most significantly growing threat to children” and that “sextortion cases tend to have more minor victims per offender than all other child sexual exploitation offenses.”  Sexual extortion, like other sexual assault crimes, is likely underreported.

Despite the lack of systematic tracking of sexual extortion cases at both the federal and state levels, there have been a number of high-profile examples involving Californians.  In 2013, a Temecula college freshman was arrested for the sexual extortion of young women and had hacked into as many as 150 online accounts.  A federal grand jury also indicted an Arvin resident in 2014 for using social media to communicate with and sexually extort dozens of minors while posing as a minor female. 

California Legislative Women’s Caucus Chair Assemblymember Cristina Garcia (D-Bell Gardens) is a principal coauthor and Assemblymember Raul Bocanegra (D-Pacoima) is a coauthor of SB 500.

SB 500 will soon be assigned to the appropriate Senate policy committee(s) for consideration.