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When Does Kidnapping Become a Federal Crime?

Posted by Dmitry Gorin | Feb 01, 2022

Review of Federal Kidnapping for Ransom Money Law - 18 U.S. Code § 1202

Kidnapping is a serious felony offense resulting in significant fines and prison time upon conviction. It is a federal offense under 18 U.S.C. 1201. It is also a crime under California Penal Code 207 or 209 PC.

If you kidnap someone in California without crossing state lines, you will likely be tried under state law rather than federal law.

The vast majority of kidnapping charges are prosecuted under state law, but there are some situations where kidnapping could be charged as a federal crime.

Kidnapping for Ransom Money
Kidnapping can be charged as a federal crime when you receive ransom money or cross state lines.

For example, if you receive ransom money for the kidnapping, you have officially committed a federal crime under 18 U.S.C. 1202.

Kidnapping is described as taking someone away against their will and usually involves holding them in false imprisonment or confining them.

Importantly, kidnapping charges typically require moving the victim a substantial distance to another location. As noted, in some cases, the federal government will get involved in prosecuting alleged kidnappers.

This means a criminal investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to obtain evidence and put together a case for a federal prosecutor to file charges.

If convicted, you could be facing up to 10 years in federal prison in addition to any other penalties from the kidnapping itself. Our Los Angeles criminal defense attorneys will take a closer look at the federal laws below.

What is the Legal Definition of Federal Kidnapping?

Section 1201 of Title 18 of the United States Code legally defines kidnapping as:

  •  "Any person who unlawfully seizes, confines, decoys, kidnaps, abducts, or carries away and holds someone for ransom or reward, except in the case of a minor by the parent thereof."

As noted, kidnapping is considered a federal offense only in certain situations, such as when the victim was transported across state lines in interstate or foreign commerce and not released for at least 24 hours.

18 U.S. Code Chapter 55 contains the federal laws related to kidnapping, which are discussed in detail further below:

The first element to understand about federal kidnapping is implicating the federal government's jurisdiction. As mentioned, for example, when a defendant willfully transports the kidnap victim in interstate or foreign commerce.

The second situation is when the kidnapper uses instrumentalities of interstate commerce to accomplish the kidnapping, which includes the mail, banking system, or other methods and facilities which interact across state lines. 

Both conspiracy and attempt are forms of kidnapping under 18 U.S.C. § 1201. If two or more people conspire to violate the federal laws on kidnapping, they can be penalized the same as if they had acted alone.

However, an attempted federal kidnapping conviction carries a lesser punishment of up to twenty years in federal prison. 

What Constitutes Collecting a Ransom?

The federal government defines a ransom as "money or property" received in response to a kidnapping, presumably in exchange for the kidnapped person's release. Under the wording of 18 U.S.C. 1202, you have violated federal ransom laws in one of two situations:

  • If you "receive, possess, or dispose of any money or property" that you know has been collected as a ransom for a kidnapping; or
  • If you "transport, transmit, or transfer" a known ransom over state or international lines (i.e., interstate commerce) for a kidnapping that violates state law.

Two critical points to derive from the language of this law. You don't have to be the person doing the kidnapping to be charged with collecting a ransom.

You only have to be aware that it is ransom money that you're collecting or transmitting. This is an important distinction because it says you could be charged for violating federal ransom laws without being accused of kidnapping.

You can be charged with federal ransom violations even if the kidnapping itself is set as a state crime. This is especially true if the money crosses interstate or international boundaries, whether cash or an electronic transfer.

What are the Penalties for Ransom Money?

Separate from any penalties stemming from the act of kidnapping itself, if you are convicted for knowingly receiving, transmitting, or disposing of a ransom, you could be facing fines, up to 10 years in federal prison, or both.

The maximum penalty is life in federal prison if the kidnapping is accomplished.  If someone was killed due to the abduction, the maximum punishment is the death penalty.

If the kidnapping victim was a child and the defendant is not a close family relative, there is a mandatory minimum punishment of twenty years in federal prison.

Is Money Collected from Ransomware Considered Ransom Money?

The term "ransomware" is unfortunate here from a legal standpoint. Under Title 18 U.S.C. 1202, a ransom is a payment given to release a kidnapped human, not a stolen item like data.

Technically, money collected from ransomware would fall more under the category of extortion than kidnapping.

Additionally, ransomware attacks fall into the category of cybercrime, which is covered by other federal laws such as the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA).

Thus, it's more likely that federal prosecutors would charge ransomware payments under these laws instead of ransom money for kidnapping.

What are the Related Federal Offenses?

Kidnapping (18 U.S.C. 1201). Ransom money does not exist without an act of abduction. Although you can be charged under ransom laws without being accused of kidnapping, someone has to have committed a kidnapping for a ransom money charge.

In most cases, the person collecting ransom is the kidnapper, so they will likely face both charges if ransom money was collected.

Kidnapping for Ransom Money
Kidnapping someone for ransom money is defined under the federal statute 18 U.S.C. 1202.

As noted, attempted kidnapping results in a prison sentence of up to 20 years; if the kidnapping is successful, it can result in life imprisonment.

Hostage Taking (18 U.S.C. 1203). This is the act of detaining and threatening to kill or injure someone to coerce a third party or government agency to do something in exchange for their release.

Taking a hostage carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment, or even the death penalty if the hostage is killed.

International Parental Kidnapping (18 U.S.C. 1204). A parent kidnapping their child is usually not prosecuted as federal kidnapping, although it can be charged under state law.

However, if the parent takes the child out of the country without the other parent's consent, it's a separate federal crime punishable by up to 3 years in prison.

What Are the Defenses Against Ransom Charges?

Kidnapping prosecuted as a federal offense requires proof the defendant seized, confined, abducted, or carried away somebody and either held them for ransom or moved them against their will from one place to another. 

The most common ways a federal defense attorney may defend against charges of ransom money are as follows:

  • No ransom money was exchanged. If you allegedly demanded ransom from someone but never received it, there was no receipt of ransom money, and therefore you didn't commit a ransom crime;
  • You were unaware it was ransom money. To be convicted on ransom charges, you must know the money you were transacting was money collected as ransom. For example, if you completed a money transfer for someone without knowledge of the kidnapping or that it was ransom money, you are not guilty of a ransom crime.

Further, it might be possible to challenge the jurisdictional elements for a federal kidnapping and argue the case should fall under state authority, which carries lesser penalties.

We might negotiate with the federal prosecutor for a favorable outcome under the circumstances. 

Eisner Gorin LLP is a top-ranked criminal defense law firm representing people for federal offenses in California and throughout the United States. You can reach us for an initial consultation by calling (310) 328-3776 or filling out our contact form.

About the Author

Dmitry Gorin

Dmitry Gorin is a licensed attorney, who has been involved in criminal trial work and pretrial litigation since 1994. Before becoming partner in Eisner Gorin LLP, Mr. Gorin was a Senior Deputy District Attorney in Los Angeles Courts for more than ten years. As a criminal tri...

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