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What is Coercion?

By Charity Delich
Updated May 16, 2024
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Coercion is a legal term that is used to describe a situation in which one person forces another person to do, or to refrain from doing, something against his will. Usually, this is done using psychological pressure or physical force. Other actions used to compel a person to behave in a certain way include deception and threatening to cause harm to the person, his family, or his property. In many jurisdictions, this is recognized as a defense to an act that would otherwise create liability, such as a crime, tort, or breach of contract. The term is often used interchangeably with duress, and it can arise in both civil and criminal cases.

In the context of criminal law, a person who coerces another can be found guilty of the crime of coercion as well as of the crime that was committed by the person under duress. Coercion is sometimes used as a defense by a person who has been accused of committing a crime. In asserting this defense, the defendant generally argues that he did not commit the crime of his own free will. Rather, another person made him commit the crime by using physical force or by threatening serious bodily harm or even death.

If a defendant can show that he was forced to commit a crime, the charges against him are normally dropped. An exception to this general rule is murder, which is indefensible on the grounds of duress in most jurisdictions. Additionally, a defendant may not be acquitted of the crime if he was not under a substantial amount of duress. For example, threats to the defendant's reputation or minor physical injuries may not excuse a defendant of committing a crime under duress.

In civil law cases, coercion can arise in estate issues. For instance, a person may intimidate a testator to write a will in a certain way against the testator’s desire. If the wrongdoer is a fiduciary, who is held to certain standards of trust, confidence, and good faith, this is referred to as undue influence. If a will has been created under duress or undue influence, the document will likely be rendered invalid during probate.

Coercion surfaces in contract law when one person unlawfully pressures another person into agreeing to certain contract terms and conditions. Typically, a person who enters into a contract under duress can void the contract and is not bound to adhere to its terms. If the contract is later ratified, however, it will be validated.

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Discussion Comments

By anon281429 — On Jul 23, 2012

My two laborers whom I hired to put in a barbed-wire fence were told by my neighbor not to continue putting up the fence because it is on her property, when in fact, she lost in court when I filed a suit against her. The case that I filed against her was reposition of ownership of property with damages. She did not pay the damages. Then she called me not to continue putting up the fence because she would pull it out. She really did these things. What should I do?

By orangey03 — On Aug 20, 2011

A kid in my high school class got charges against him dropped because of a combination of coercion and abuse. His dad had used his psychological power over his son to make him steal a car and drive through the front window of an electronics store so that they could rob it.

His mom and sisters were able to testify to the pattern of both mental and physical abuse. His father often beat him until he was bruised and bloody. He could make him do whatever he wanted him to just by threatening him with words, because the kid knew what lay in store for him if he did not obey.

Though the kid was the one in the car as it crashed through the store window, and he was the only one at the scene when the cops arrived because the dad got scared and ran when the alarm sounded, he did not have to serve any time because he was both coerced and mentally damaged. The judge did require him to seek mental help in a residential facility, while his dad got locked up for several years.

By OeKc05 — On Aug 20, 2011

I know a guitarist in a local band who claimed he was coerced to commit murder. He valued his musical ability more than life itself, and his claim did not keep him from being declared guilty.

He was into drugs, and so he had to keep his dealer happy. At first, when the dealer asked him to kill someone who was about to testify against him, the guitarist declined. Then, the dealer threatened to cut off one of his fingers if he didn’t do it.

Because the loss of a finger would destroy his music career, he actually went through with the murder. When he told the court what his coercion involved, some members of the jury actually snickered.

He was convicted of murder, and they never found the dealer. If they do, I’m sure he will receive a hefty sentence as well.

By cloudel — On Aug 19, 2011

My friend suffered extensive psychological damage after she was coerced to keep quiet while a man held a knife to her throat. He had tied her up and put her in the cellar of her home, and he let her know that he had rigged a bomb to go off when her roommate came home and opened the front door.

He was so cruel. He kept the windows to the cellar open so she could see and hear her roommate approaching the door. He told her that if she cried out a warning to her friend, he would slice her open in a way that would surely cause her death.

She had to watch her friend get her leg blown off. She heard her horrible screams as she burned in the fire. She has nightmares and panic attacks often, and I don’t know if she will ever recover fully.

By shell4life — On Aug 18, 2011

My sister was coerced into helping a man rob a convenience store. The security camera and the witnesses inside the store at the time of the robbery were able to clear her name of this crime.

A masked man with a gun entered the store while she was standing in line. He grabbed her and pointed the gun at her head. Everyone could hear what was going on, and they knew she was coerced.

He made her go up to the cashier and demand the money. She grabbed the bag once the man filled it. The robber kept his gun on her the whole time.

When he got caught, he actually tried to claim that he did not rob the store, because my sister was the one who demanded the cash. The cops just laughed at him. Of course, she did not get into any legal trouble.

By GreenWeaver — On Aug 18, 2011

I wanted to say that a few years ago there was a chilling bank robbery in my town. It involved a bank teller that was apparently followed for a few weeks and later kidnapped from his home and in a violent coercion attempt was forced to rob the bank he worked for.

The suspects strapped a bomb to his back and made him rob his own bank while holding his father hostage at his home. Some people initially thought that the teller was somehow in on the heist, but it was later determined that the teller was forced in a physical coercion attempt and was released from authorizes because they realized that he was set up.

The suspects are still at large and I have to tell you that I felt so bad for the teller because I could not even begin to imagine the horror that he experienced that day. His life will never be the same. This bank robbery happened in an affluent community near my children’s school.

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