For some, kidnapping conjures up stories and images of notorious crimes from the past. Consider the shock of the kidnapping and murder of the Lindbergh baby in 1932 or the abduction of Patty Hearst in 1974. You may also recall the terrorizing effect of international incidents of hostage-taking. The news cycle kept viewers glued to their TV sets as kidnappers took hostages at the Munich Olympics in 1972. Concerned citizens watched tragic events unfold at the U.S. Embassy in Iran in 1979 and on the fatal flights of 9/11 in 2001.
Under federal and state law, kidnapping involves the taking of a person from one place to another against their will, often by physical force. It can also include the confinement of a person to a controlled space without their consent. Some kidnapping laws require that the taking or confinement be for an unlawful purpose, such as extortion or to commit another crime.
Kidnapping incidents involving strangers may garner more media attention. Yet a parent without legal custody rights may face kidnapping charges for taking their own child against court custody orders.
This article will review federal and state kidnapping laws and penalties. It will also discuss related offenses and defenses to these criminal charges.
Federal Kidnapping Laws
Most kidnapping cases are prosecuted at the state level. Federal authorities typically get involved if the kidnapping crosses state lines. Federal criminal law (18 U.S.C. Section 1201) makes kidnapping a serious felony offense. Prison sentences may reach 20 years or more, depending on prior convictions and the circumstances of the case.
To sustain a federal charge of kidnapping, the government must show that the offender both:
- Unlawfully seized, confined, lured, abducted, or held for ransom or reward anyone other than their minor child
- Took the person across state or international borders; or used the mail or other means of interstate or foreign commerce to commit or further the offense
Federal law prosecutes international parental kidnapping under a different code (18 U.S.C. Section 1204). This crime involves removing or attempting to remove a child (under 16 years old) from the U.S. or retaining an American child outside the U.S. The government must show that the offending parent or third party committed the crime with the intent to obstruct the lawful exercise of parental rights. Penalties include a fine and up to three years in prison.
International Child Abduction Laws
When non-custodial parents take minors to another country, the courts in that nation generally have jurisdiction over the case. International civil law also plays a role, as more than 80 countries have adopted the Hague Convention on Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. The treaty outlines the most expedient method of returning abducted children to their home countries.
The Hague Convention focuses on custody matters rather than criminal punishment. It doesn't address who should have custody of the child, only where the custody case should be heard. Every kidnapping case is different, particularly when it involves crossing international lines. You may want to speak to a criminal defense lawyer who is experienced with international kidnapping laws to learn more.
State Kidnapping Laws
Kidnapping is most commonly pursued as a state crime. State laws vary in definition and degree. In most states, aggravating factors may elevate a simple kidnapping offense into a crime with a possible life sentence.
In California, the basic definition of the offense appears in Penal Code 207. Like the federal offense, California's statute outlaws holding, detaining, or arresting another person and carrying them to another location. The kidnapper can commit the crime through the use of force or other means of instilling fear. Sections of the law separate kidnappings with a sexual purpose or an element of slavery or involuntary servitude. California also sets forth a separate kidnapping crime that occurs as part of a carjacking.
Penalties for kidnapping vary and increase when the victim is under 14 years of age. A kidnapping conviction usually results in a state prison sentence of at least three years. The high end of the sentencing range is 11 years. The law presumes at least 12 months served in jail or prison prior to any release on probation.
The consequences may rise to a life sentence with the possibility of parole if the kidnapping occurs for ransom, reward, or to commit serious crimes like rape and robbery. Under such circumstances, if the victim dies or suffers any bodily injury, the court can impose a life sentence without parole.
California also has a "three strikes law" that addresses punishment for repeat felony offenders. A kidnapping conviction means one strike on a felony record. Under the three strikes law, a second or third qualifying felony conviction can bring mandatory time in prison. If an offender reaches a third conviction, the mandatory sentence is at least 25 years to life in state prison.
State kidnapping law in North Carolina sets forth the elements of the crime in Section 14-39. The statute says a person who unlawfully confines, restrains, or moves a person from one place to another commits kidnapping if they did so for any of these purposes:
- To hold for ransom or as a hostage or shield
- To facilitate a felony or the flight thereafter
- To commit serious bodily harm or to terrorize the victim
- To hold the victim in involuntary servitude
- To traffic the victim into involuntary or sexual servitude
- To subject or maintain the victim for sexual servitude
If the offender releases the victim in a safe place with no serious injury or sexual assault, the offense is second-degree kidnapping. It is a class E felony. Sentencing in North Carolina depends on the class of the offense and "points" that accumulate from an offender's prior record. Punishment could range from 15 to 63 months in state prison.
If the offender does not release the victim in a safe place or has caused serious injury or engaged in sexual assault, it's first-degree kidnapping, a class C felony. The punishment ranges from 44 to 182 months in prison.
In most states, the crime of abduction serves as a related offense to kidnapping. Depending on state law, abduction may qualify as a lesser-included offense. Prosecutors may seek charges for both kidnapping and abduction in appropriate cases.
State laws such as unlawful restraint may make less serious conduct a misdemeanor offense. Ohio's unlawful restraint crime, for example, bars an offender from knowingly restraining another person's liberty without privilege to do so.
Some states provide for a related offense called false imprisonment. The state may pursue the crime as a misdemeanor or a felony depending on the circumstances. In Nevada, false imprisonment involves a violation of someone else's personal liberty by confinement or detention without legal authority. The misdemeanor crime can become a felony offense if it involves the use of a deadly weapon.
America's Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response (AMBER) is an emergency response system used in all 50 states. It uses the media and other broadcasting methods, such as text messages, to alert the community about missing persons. While the system can be used to disseminate information about adults, it's most often used for missing children.
Once law enforcement determines that a child is the victim of kidnapping or abduction, AMBER Alerts interrupt regular broadcasting on televisions, radios, and certain websites. The alerts provide identifying information about the missing child.
AMBER Alerts seek the public's help in locating an abducted child or person. If a citizen believes they saw the child, they can contact a local law enforcement agency or call 911 immediately. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, 1,127 children had been recovered as of January 2023 thanks to AMBER Alerts.
Legal Defenses to Kidnapping
As in all criminal cases, the state has the burden of proof. The prosecutor must prove each element of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt to obtain a conviction.
There are several possible legal defenses to the crime of kidnapping, depending on the jurisdiction. Generally, a defendant may be able to assert the following defenses:
- The victim consented to being moved or accompanying the defendant. Sometimes the state statute will provide exemptions or defenses itself. For example, one exemption may be that the victim was transported to prevent immediate harm to the victim.
- The defendant did not intend to use force or deadly force.
- The alleged kidnapper's lack of knowledge, mistake, or ignorance makes them not responsible.
- The defendant is a family member and had authority to act.
- The defendant suffers from insanity, mental disease, or defect.
- The offender acted under duress, meaning someone else threatened physical harm.
Kidnapping: Additional Resources
Need More Information on Kidnapping Laws? Contact a Local Attorney
State and federal laws alike may apply to a kidnapping case. These laws often have different elements. If you have information about a missing person, contact local police, or get legal advice on next steps.
If you face kidnapping charges, know that these are serious crimes. A criminal defense lawyer can sort through the evidence and possible defenses likely in your case.