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AMBER Alerts: Law and Background

The AMBER Alert system provides quick dissemination of public information about child abductions. AMBER is an acronym for America's Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response. The system informs the public about child abductions through various media outlets, including television, radio, and cell phone networks. Below, you'll find information about AMBER Alerts, laws establishing the system, criteria for issuing an AMBER Alert, and how they help resolve child abduction cases.

AMBER Alerts Law: Formation of the System

The AMBER Alert Program takes its name from 9-year-old Amber Hagerman. She was abducted and murdered in Arlington, Texas, in 1996. Amber's parents promptly reported the abduction to authorities and the media, but their efforts were to no avail. Their child's body was found in a drainage ditch four days after the kidnapping.

The Hagermans pushed Texas legislators to create the AMBER Alert plan. Other states soon developed their own AMBER Alert systems. Today, all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico have active AMBER Alert programs.

On April 30, 2003, President George W. Bush signed the PROTECT Act. The PROTECT Act established the federal government's role in the AMBER Alert system.

The law appropriated over $20 million for the National AMBER Alert Network. It provided grants to the states for developing or enhancing notification systems. Every state now has an AMBER Alert system. It also created a national AMBER Alert coordinator. The coordinator falls under the authority of the attorney general and the Department of Justice (DOJ).

In addition, the PROTECT Act:

  • Authorized wiretaps for federal investigations of child sex trafficking and child pornography
  • Removed any remaining federal statutes of limitations involving the abduction or physical or sexual abuse of a child
  • Made it more difficult for child abductors to make bail
  • Increased federal minimum prison sentences for offenses related to abduction and exploitation of children
  • Imposed a two-strike penalty requiring life imprisonment for offenders convicted of a second serious federal sex offense against a minor
  • Strengthened prohibitions on virtual child pornography
  • Gave judges less authority to give reduced prison sentences

Suzanne's Law, part of the PROTECT Act, made it easier for police agencies to share information about missing college students. It also prohibited law enforcement agencies from imposing a waiting period before accepting reports of missing persons between ages 18 and 21. Police can seek the activation of a similar emergency alert system as appropriate.

The DOJ reported the safe recovery of more than 1,100 abducted children as of July 5, 2021. The DOJ sponsors a website dedicated to AMBER Alerts. It includes a frequently asked questions (FAQ) page to assist law enforcement and citizens.

AMBER Alerts Law: Criteria Used to Issue an Alert

To avoid false alarms, the U.S. Department of Justice has developed a set of activation criteria. Before issuing an AMBER alert, states should meet the following criteria:

  • Law enforcement must have reason to believe that an abduction has occurred.
  • The child is 17 years old or younger.
  • The child is at risk of imminent danger of serious injury or death.
  • There is enough descriptive information about the child, the suspect, or the suspect's vehicle to issue an alert.

After meeting the criteria, a local law enforcement agency or coordinator may issue an AMBER Alert. The alert typically includes descriptive information about the child, their captor, and the vehicle used in the abduction. Law enforcement may share photographs of the child if available.

The alert is then distributed to media outlets and state transportation offices. AMBER alerts may appear on billboards, message signs, radio stations, mobile devices (text messages), television and cable stations, websites, and e-mail. Anyone with information about the abduction is asked to notify authorities.

Distribution of AMBER alerts may also occur through the Emergency Alert System (EAS) of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The EAS sends wireless emergency alerts to persons with enabled devices. EAS alerts include emergencies and other threats to public safety. They can issue an AMBER alert to accessible devices in a given geographic area.

What Can I Do if My Child Goes Missing?

If you believe that your child missing or suspect an abduction, you should take action. You can call 911 or otherwise contact your local law enforcement agency and make a report. You can also contact the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC). NCMEC serves as a clearinghouse for information related to missing persons. You can reach NCMEC at 1-800-843-5678.

There may also be steps you can take to engage your children in crime prevention education. Resources may be as close as your local hospital or police department.

Learn More About AMBER Alerts Law: Talk to an Attorney

AMBER Alerts have raised awareness of child abductions nationwide. Many alerts result in the recovery of the child. But there are times when mistakes or misconceptions are at play. For example, false claims of child abduction can arise in hostile family relationships or in the heat of a divorce.

If you or someone you love is facing accusations of child abduction, you should consult with a criminal defense attorney to understand your rights. There may be steps you can take to prevent these crimes and resolve concerns of criminal liability.

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