AMBER Alerts: Law and Background
The AMBER Alert system is intended to quickly and widely disseminate information about child abductions. AMBER is an acronym for "America's Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response." The system uses various media outlets, including television and radio, to inform the general public about recent abductions. Below, you'll find information about AMBER Alerts, laws establishing their use, and how they work.
AMBER Alerts Law: Formation of the System
The system takes its name from 9-year-old Amber Hagerman, who was abducted and murdered in Arlington, Texas, in 1996. Amber's parents quickly reported the abduction to authorities and the media, but their efforts were to no avail. The girl's body was found in a drainage ditch four days after the abduction. The Hagermans subsequently pushed Texas legislators to create the system that would become AMBER Alerts. Other states soon developed their own AMBER Alert systems as well.
On April 30, 2003, President George W. Bush signed into law the PROTECT Act, which established the federal government's role in the AMBER Alert system. The law appropriated $20 million for the National AMBER Alert Network for grants to the states for the development or enhancement of notification systems. Every state now has an AMBER Alert system. In addition, this Act:
- Removed any remaining statutes of limitations for crimes involving the abduction or physical or sexual abuse of a child;
- Made it more difficult for those accused of serious crimes against children to make bail;
- Increased minimum prison sentences for non-family member child abductions to 20 years and for sexual exploitation of children and child pornography to 15 to 30 years;
- Imposed a two strike penalty requiring life imprisonment for offenders who commit two serious sexual abuse offenses against a child; and
- Strengthened prohibitions on virtual child pornography.
Based on these efforts and those of the states, the Department of Justice reports that, as of December 2015, 800 children have been rescued and returned due to the AMBER alert system.
AMBER Alerts Law: Criteria Used to Issue an Alert
In order to avoid false alarms, the U.S. Department of Justice has developed a set of criteria to which states typically adhere. Before issuing an AMBER alert, the following criteria should be established:
- Law enforcement confirms that an abduction has occurred;
- The child is 17 years old or younger;
- The child is at risk of serious injury or death; and
- There's enough descriptive information about the child, the captor, or the captor's vehicle to issue an alert.
Once the criteria have been established, authorities issue an AMBER Alert, which typically includes descriptive information about the child, their captor, and the vehicle used in the abduction. Photographs of the child are also included if available. The alert is then distributed via billboards, radio stations, text messages, television and cable stations, websites, e-mail, and other modes. Anyone with information pertaining to the abduction is asked to notify authorities.
Learn More About AMBER Alerts Law: Talk to an Attorney
Thankfully, AMBER Alerts have raised the attention paid to child abductions with many positive results, but there are times when mistakes or misconceptions are at play. For example, false claims of child abduction can arise during periods of hostile family relationships or in the heat of a divorce. If you're facing accusations of child abduction, you should consult with a criminal defense attorney to understand your rights and how you can protect yourself from criminal liability.