6th upholds convictions/sentences in Stamos extortion case

Two Upper Peninsula residents convicted of trying to extort $680,000 from actor John Stamos — of “E.R.” and “Full House” fame – had their convictions and sentences affirmed by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Allison Coss and Scott Sippola were convicted of extortion of a celebrity. In 2004, Coss had met Stamos at a club in Orlando (technically Lake Buena Vista, if you know what I’m saying) in 2004. After a few days of amusement park tours and partying, the two parted ways, but exchanged email addresses. They met up again when Stamos flew Coss to Chicago while he was there filming “E.R.”

In 2008, Coss began dating Sippola, who saw photos of Coss partying with Stamos that fateful time in Florida and the two hatched a plot to “sell’ the photos to Stamos for $680,000, lest they be sold to one of America’s finest celebrity newspapers. (Really, has John Stamos ever been THAT big of a celebrity? I could see it if it was George Clooney, Leonardo DiCaprio or Brad Pitt, but John Stamos? He’s such a big celebrity that I felt the need to remind you of from where you might remember him.)

Anyway, Coss and Sippola made a couple fake email accounts and sent Stamos messages, which were forwarded to his attorney, then to the authorities who promptly arrested the two.

Coss and Sippola challenged their “intent to extort” convictions, arguing that the law prohibits only “unlawful” threats, instead of simply “wrongful” ones. The Sixth Circuit said it comes down to whether the person had a legal right to the money he was demanding.

Consider, first, the most classic extortion scenario where individual X demands money from individual Y in exchange for individual X’s silence or agreement to destroy evidence of individual Y’s marital infidelity. In this instance, the threat to reputation is wrongful because individual X has no claim of right against individual Y to the money demanded. This is clear because as soon as the marital infidelity is exposed individual X loses her ability to demand the money from individual Y. Individual X’s only leverage or claim to the money demanded from individual Y is the threat of exposing the marital infidelity and, thus, individual X’s threat has no nexus to a true claim of right. By way of contrast, consider the Second Circuit’s example of a country club manager who threatens to publish a list of members delinquent in their dues if the members do not promptly pay the manager their outstanding account balances. … In that instance, there is a nexus between the threat and a claim of right: The duty of the members to pay the country club the outstanding dues exists independently of the threat and will continue to exist even if the club manager publishes the list as threatened. The law recognizes the club manager’s threat as a lawful and valid exercise of his enforcement rights and, therefore, does not criminalize his conduct as extortion.

The court went on:

At least some “wrongful” threats under the Second Circuit’s “claim of right” definition would also be unlawful in a criminal or civil sense—such threats could implicate defamation or fraud. Moreover, identification of a “claim of right” requires reference to preexisting legal standards and thereby utilizes these standards in distinguishing lawful from unlawful conduct. Nevertheless, the two standards implicate an important difference. To require that a threat be unlawful would be to require that the prosecution demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt that the threat in question was independently illegal in either the criminal or civil sense. We see no reason, nor any historical or statutory basis, for reading such a requirement into 18 U.S.C. § 875(d).

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