Overview of U.S. Kidnapping Laws

Under federal and state law, kidnapping is commonly defined as the taking of a person from one place to another against his or her will, or the confining of a person to a controlled space. Some kidnapping laws require that the taking or confining be for an unlawful purpose, such as extortion or the facilitation of a crime. A parent without legal custody rights may be charged with kidnapping for taking his or her own child, in certain circumstances.

Federal vs. State Kidnapping Laws

Federal criminal code (18 U.S.C. § 1201) makes kidnapping a serious felony offense, with prison sentences of 20 or more years, depending on prior convictions and the circumstances of the case. Federal law prosecutes international parental kidnapping under a different code (18 U.S.C. § 1204), allowing for three-year prison sentences upon conviction.

Most kidnapping cases are prosecuted on the state level. Federal authorities will typically get involved and file federal charges if the kidnapping crosses state lines. See State Kidnapping Laws for a state-by-state directory for additional information.

International Child Abduction Laws

Minors are increasingly being abducted not only across state lines, but international as well. If this happens, the courts of that particular country will generally have jurisdiction of the case. International civil law will also play a role as more than 80 countries have adopted the Hague Convention on Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, a treaty designed to provide an expedient method of returning abducted children to their home countries. While the Hague Convention focuses on custody matters (as opposed to criminal punishment), the treaty doesn't address who should have custody of the child; only where the custody case should be heard. Remember, every kidnapping case is different, particularly when it involves crossing international lines. You'll want to speak to a criminal law attorney who is experienced with international law to learn more.

Amber Alerts

America's Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response (AMBER) is an emergency response system used in all 50 states that utilizes the media and other broadcasting methods (such as text messages) to alert the community about allegedly missing persons. While the system can be used to disseminate information about adults, it is frequently used for missing children. Once law enforcement determines that a child has been abducted, AMBER Alerts will interrupt regular broadcasting on televisions, radios and the Internet with the child's specific identifying information. If you believe that you have seen the child or other allegedly abducted person, contact your local law enforcement agency or call 911 immediately. According to the Department of Justice, 800 children have been recovered as of December 2015 because of AMBER alerts.

Defenses to Kidnapping

There are a number of possible legal defenses to the crime of kidnapping, depending on which state the alleged crime took place. Generally, a defendant may be able to assert the following defenses:

  • The victim consented to being moved or to accompanying the defendant;
  • Lack of intent to use deadly force;
  • Lack of knowledge, mistake, ignorance;
  • The defendant is a relative of the victim;
  • Insanity, mental disease, or defect.

Additional Resources

Charge with Kidnapping? Contact an Attorney

There are state and federal laws that apply to kidnapping, which may have different elements that a prosecutor will need to prove beyond a reasonable doubt. Whether you're convicted of this charge will ultimately rest in a jury of your peers. If you've been charged with kidnapping, it's in your best interest to get in touch with a local criminal defense attorney who can help you make your case with the strongest evidence available.

Next Steps

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