Kidnapping carries some of the harshest state and federal penalites.

By , Attorney · Mitchell Hamline School of Law
Updated 9/23/2022

Kidnapping occurs when someone abducts, takes, or confines another person against their will or without consent. It can be a state or federal crime.

What Is the Definition of Kidnapping?

While all states criminalize kidnapping, state laws on kidnapping differ in how they define the crime.

Legal Definitions of Kidnapping

Kidnapping involves confining, abducting, restraining, or moving a person without consent and with one of the following purposes in mind:

  • for ransom or reward
  • as a hostage or shield
  • to hold as an involuntary servant
  • to commit or facilitate a felony or flee from a felony
  • to terrorize the victim or another, or
  • to assault, sexually assault, or inflict bodily harm on the victim.

It's irrelevant whether the kidnapper achieves their purpose; it's the intent that matters.

How States Differ in Defining Kidnapping

In some states, confinement or abduction by force, threats, or fraud suffices for kidnapping. Additional motive (such as holding one hostage or demanding ransom) isn't required for a prosecutor to secure a kidnapping conviction—but, if present, proof of additional motive may result in harsher penalties.

Another common difference in states is whether a kidnapping conviction hinges on moving the victim, and if so, how much. Some states label the offense as false imprisonment or restraint, rather than kidnapping, if there's no physical movement of the victim.

What Is the Difference Between Abduction and Kidnapping?

In many states, abduction is an element of kidnapping. Abduction means to seize and take away a person by force or trick. Other states use the term abduction to specifically describe taking a person without effective consent (rather than forcefully), such as taking one's child in violation of another's parental custody rights (child abduction).

How Is Kidnapping Punished?

Kidnapping is a serious felony offense with penalties that can range from decades to life in prison.

Different Degrees or Severity Levels of Kidnapping

Some state laws separate kidnapping into offenses of different degrees or levels of severity. For example, a charge of first-degree kidnapping, sometimes known as aggravated kidnapping, might involve a case where the accused kidnapper physically harmed, sexually assaulted, or exposed the victim to serious risk of harm during the course of the kidnapping. When no aggravating factors are involved, the offense might be referred to as simple kidnapping or second- or third-degree kidnapping.

State Penalties for Kidnapping

Penalties for kidnapping convictions generally carry long prison sentences. States often reserve the harshest penalties—which can be life in prison—for kidnapping offenses involving a young child or resulting in serious harm to the victim. It's common to see felony prison sentences of 20 years or more for other kidnapping offenses. Many states also provide lower penalties if the kidnapper released the victim in a safe place and without harm.

Federal Penalties for Kidnapping

Though the majority of kidnapping crimes are prosecuted as state offenses, the federal government can also prosecute someone for kidnapping if the kidnapping crosses state lines. Federal prosecutors can file kidnapping charges independent of state charges, meaning you can be charged with both federal and state crimes.

Federal penalties for kidnapping are harsh. The law authorizes a judge to sentence the offender to any term of years and up to life in prison. If the victim was a child, a minimum 20-year prison sentence applies. (18 U.S.C. § 1201.)

Criminal Statutes of Limitations in Kidnapping Cases

In many states, no time limit exists for charging kidnapping crimes. This time limit is referred to as the criminal statute of limitations. While a prosecutor might only have a few years to bring charges in other types of criminal cases, typically murder and kidnapping have either no time limit (meaning they can be charged at any time) or very lengthy time limits for charging.

Contacting an Attorney

Kidnapping is one of the most serious criminal offenses a person can be charged with. Even if you are investigated or suspected of kidnapping and never charged, you can suffer a social stigma that can last with you for a lifetime. Being convicted of kidnapping will likely bring significant criminal penalties and cripple your future chances at employment. If you are facing a kidnapping charge, you need to speak to an experienced criminal defense attorney in your area right away.

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