18 U.S. Code § 1201 - Federal Kidnapping Laws

Most kidnapping cases are prosecuted under local state laws in state courtrooms. Still, there are situations where kidnapping will fall under federal jurisdiction and become a federal crime, defined under Title 18 U.S. Code 1201, which is the Federal Kidnapping Act.

Kidnapping is generally described as taking someone away against their will. Sometimes, it will involve confinement or detaining them in false imprisonment or forcing them into a vehicle and driving them somewhere. In the most severe cases, a kidnapping victim is tied up and locked in a room to prevent an escape.

18 U.S.C. 1201 says, “Whoever unlawfully seizes, confines, decoys, kidnaps, abducts or carries away and holds for ransom or reward any person, or when the person is willfully transported in interstate or foreign commerce across a state boundary is guilty of kidnapping and shall be….”

18 U.S. Code § 1201 - Federal Kidnapping Laws
Federal kidnapping, under 18 U.S.C. 1201, can be charged when a victim is taken across state lines.

You're likely to see federal jurisdiction related to a conspiracy or RICO violation where gang members are kidnapping people as part of their RICO activities, and that's where I've witnessed kidnapping charges filed. Taking a victim across state lines is a significant factor in who handles a kidnapping case.

Notably, under this federal law, a conspiracy and attempt are a form of kidnapping. For example, suppose two or more people conspire to violate this law.  In that case, they would face penalties as if they acted alone.  

There are special rules if children are involved. I've seen the federal government get involved, especially if it's for purposes of sex trafficking, kidnapping, or either bringing children into the United States or taking them out.

Another scenario for kidnapping charges is a custody battle between parents, and one takes a child out of the state or out of the country in violation of a court order.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is the leading agency handling kidnapping cases by gathering evidence and apprehending alleged suspects. Let's review this federal law in more detail below.

Kidnapping – Explained

18 U.S.C. 1201 says that someone is guilty of kidnapping when they do any of the following on another person against their will:

  • seize,
  • forcefully take,
  • hold them,
  • confine,
  • kidnap,
  • inveigle,
  • decoys,
  • abducts,
  • carries away,
  • holds for ransom or reward.

As noted, kidnapping is only considered a federal crime in specific situations, including taking a victim across state lines in interstate or foreign commerce and not being released for at least 24 hours.

When Is Kidnapping a Federal Crime?

Under 18 U.S.C. 1201, kidnapping becomes a federal offense if any of the following situations apply:

  • The victim is transported in interstate or foreign commerce, meaning they were taken across state lines or out of the country;
  • When the perpetrator crosses state lines or international boundaries to commit the kidnapping;
  • When the perpetrator uses instruments of interstate or foreign commerce, such as the mail system, to commit kidnapping;
  • When the crime occurs within the special maritime and territorial jurisdiction of the United States, such as naval waters, vessel, or aircraft, or when the victim is a U.S. citizen in foreign boundaries;
  • When the crime occurs within the special aircraft jurisdiction of the United States, such as any civil or military aircraft or any other aircraft outside the country that lands in the United States;
  • When the victim is a foreign official, internationally protected person, guest of the United States, or a protected U.S. officer or employee.

Further, if the kidnapping involves minors or any sexual purpose and multiple victims are involved, that could trigger the federal government to become involved.  I've also seen the federal government get involved when people travel to another country for sex with a minor.

For purposes of getting witnesses in other countries or other states, it's easier for the federal government to get involved and deal with that type of kidnapping case. 

Notably, there is an exception to the rule under 18 U.S.C. 1201. Suppose a parent kidnaps their child and takes them across state lines. In that case, they would be exempt from facing federal kidnapping charges but would rather face prosecution under state laws.

What is the 24-Hour Rule?

18 U.S.C. 1201 has a special provision that makes kidnapping a federal crime crossing state or international lines if the victim is not released within 24 hours.

Specifically, 18 U.S.C. 1201(b) says, “…. the failure to release the victim within twenty-four hours after he shall have been unlawfully seized, confined… shall create a rebuttable presumption that such person has been transported in interstate or foreign commerce.”

Simply put, suppose the victim is not released within 24 hours. In that case, federal authorities can presume they were already transported across state or international borders.

Suppose the kidnapping lasted longer than 24 hours, but no borders were crossed.  In that case, it would have to be challenged by a federal defense lawyer to avoid federal kidnapping prosecution.

What Are the Related Federal Statutes?

18 U.S. Code Chapter 55 Kidnapping has some federal laws that are closely related to 18 U.S.C. 1201 kidnapping, including the following: 

  • 18 U.S.C. 1202 – ransom money;
  • 18 U.S.C. 1203 – hostage taking;
  • 18 U.S.C. 1204 – international parental kidnapping.

Notably, the parental kidnapping law says, “(a) Whoever removes a child from the United States, or attempts to do so, or retains a child outside the United States with intent to obstruct the lawful exercise of parental rights shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than three years, or both.”

What Are the Penalties for 18 U.S.C. 1201?

Suppose you are convicted of federal kidnapping charges violating 18 U.S.C. 1201. In that case, you face the following penalties:

  • Federal kidnapping, in general, carries a term of years in the Federal Bureau of Prisons and up to life imprisonment;
  • Attempted kidnapping carries up to 20 years in prison;
  • Conspiracy to commit federal kidnapping (two or more people) and take direct steps, then all involved can be sentenced to life in prison. Notably, it does not matter if the abduction was successful, just the attempt.
  • Suppose someone is killed due to a kidnapping crime. In that case, the sentence is mandatory life imprisonment or the death penalty.

What Are the Defenses for 18 U.S.C. 1201?

In federal kidnapping cases, the prosecutor must be able to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, all the elements of the crime to obtain a conviction.

This means they must show that you seized, confined, abducted, or carried away a victim against their will from one place to another. Maybe we can argue that there is insufficient evidence to prove all the elements of the crime.

Defenses for Federal Kidnapping Charges
Contact our federal defense attorneys for advice.

Maybe we can argue that there was consent by the victim to be moved or that the alleged crime does not qualify as a federal offense but rather a state crime with lesser penalties. The jurisdictional factors may not have been met.

Maybe we can argue that you are the victim of mistaken identity or a false accusation. Perhaps your constitutional rights were violated by law enforcement.

Insanity is another defense I've seen used under the right circumstances to defend a kidnapping case at the federal level. The bottom line is that the defense will be dictated by the facts of the case and the circumstances surrounding it. Negotiation with the federal prosecutor might be possible for a favorable plea bargain if your guilt is not in doubt.

Suppose you or a family member is under investigation for federal kidnapping under Title 18, Section 1201. In that case, contact our law firm for a free case evaluation.  We handle federal criminal matters across the United States. The Hedding Law Firm is located in Los Angeles, CA.

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