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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, providing grants to the states for the development or enhancement of notification systems. Every state now has an AMBER Alert system.

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 those accused of serious federal crimes against children 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 who are 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 AMBER Alert bill, 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 the ages of 18 and 21.

Based on these efforts, and those of the states, the Department of Justice reports that, as of July 5, 2021, more than 1,000 children have been rescued and returned.

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 must have reason to believe 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 is 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 or someone you love is 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.

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