Kidnapping--Introduction

The word “kidnapping” evokes the image of abducting a child, or the member of a wealthy family, and holding him or her for ransom. To be sure, kidnapping as defined in both New Jersey and federal law includes that. But, under both New Jersey and federal legislation, kidnapping includes much more.

Kidnapping--New Jersey Law

New Jersey defines kidnapping at N.J.S. 2C:13-1 as follows:

a. Holding for ransom, reward, or as a hostage. A person is guilty of kidnapping if he unlawfully removes another from the place where he is found or if he unlawfully confines another with the purpose of holding that person for ransom or reward or as a shield or hostage.

b. Holding for other purposes. A person is guilty of kidnapping if he unlawfully removes another from his place of residence or business, or a substantial distance from the vicinity where he is found, or if he unlawfully confines another for a substantial period, with any of the following purposes:

(1) To facilitate commission of any crime or flight thereafter;

(2) To inflict bodily injury on or to terrorize the victim or another;

(3) To interfere with the performance of any governmental or political function; or

(4) To permanently deprive a parent, guardian, or other lawful custodian of custody of the victim.

State of New Jersey v. Cruz-Pena, (App. Div., 2019), is a case that explores these concepts in detail. Juan E. Cruz-Pena subjected his victim to hours of sexual abuse on a covered porch. Despite Cruz-Pena unlawfully confining his victim over those hours, the court held that under New Jersey law as defined above, the requirements for kidnapping were not met. What made her confinement not kidnapping was that that confinement was incidental to the criminal sexual abuse that Cruz-Pena inflicted. Sexual assault and other sex crimes in general, by their nature, involve constraint and force since they are, by definition, nonconsensual. The restraints upon the victim in Cruz-Pena were not independent of the sexual abuse; rather, they were inherent in it.

Also relevant is that during the abuse, Cruz-Pena never moved the victim from her original location on the porch. Thus she was not put at a greater risk or danger by way of forced movement, as she would have been had she been taken indoors, or to some other more private location. Her hours-long confinement on the porch also did not create an additional danger separate from the sexual abuse, since it was done only in relation to Cruz-Pena's underlying sex crime. Finally, the victim was not left tied-up, gagged, or in any position that would make her vulnerable to further harm.

Due to the overarching fact that the victim faced no additional harm from being forcibly constrained by Cruz-Pena, and was put at no additional risk due to her constraint, the kidnapping charge could not stand.

No one number determines whether a length of time or distance of travel qualifies as “substantial”. Rather, it is a contextual. It requires a qualitative assessment of the situation. The conclusion will obviously consider whether the distance moved or time confined subjected the victim to risk of additional harm. Yet, as seen in Cruz-Pena, forced confinement or movement of a victim will sometimes be insufficient under New Jersey law to constitute kidnapping.

Although the kidnapping charge in the Cruz-Pena were ultimately dismissed, that case nonetheless demonstrates that, under New Jersey law, kidnapping does not require that the victim be removed from their original location. Merely preventing the victim from departing from wherever s/he may be can constitute kidnapping when the remaining elements of the offense are satisfied.

New Jersey crimes similar to kidnapping are criminal restraint, defined at N.J.S. 2C:13-2; and false imprisonment, defined at N.J.S. 2C:13-3. Although still a crime, criminal restraint is less serious than kidnapping. False imprisonment, under New Jersey law, is not even a crime. It is, rather, a “disorderly persons offense.”

Persons convicted of kidnapping under New Jersey law can be sentenced to as much as life imprisonment. By way of contrast, a conviction for false imprisonment exposes a person to jail for no more than six months. Thus persons charged with kidnapping under New Jersey law should always explore whether what they should have been charged with (if anything) is nothing more than criminal restraint or even just false imprisonment.

Kidnapping--Federal Law

It wasn't until 1932 that kidnapping became a federal offense. However, after kidnapping became more and more common, state law enforcement realized there was little they could do after a perpetrator had crossed state lines. After the infamous kidnapping and murder of the Lindbergh baby, congress passed the Federal Kidnapping Act, now codified at 18 U.S.C. 1201. Under 18 U.S.C. 1201, kidnapping becomes a federal crime when one or more of the following situations occurs:
  • A victim is transported in interstate or foreign commerce, regardless of whether or not the victim was alive at the time of transporting;
     
  • The person uses the mail or other instrumentality of interstate or foreign commerce in committing the offense;
     
  • The act is done within the special maritime and territorial jurisdiction of the United States;
     
  • The act is done within the special aircraft jurisdiction of the United States;
     
  • The victim is a foreign official, an internationally protected person, or an official guest of the United states;
     
  • The act is done against an employee or agent of the United States while engaged in official activities or on account of their official status.
     
Similar to New Jersey kidnapping law, a federal kidnapping does not necessarily involve the forced movement of someone. Tricking or “decoying” a person into being transported, or just preventing someone from leaving a location, can constitute federal kidnapping. Ransom or rewards, although commonly involved in federal kidnapping cases, are not requisites for federal kidnapping jurisdiction.

Chatwin v. United States, 326 U.S. 455 (1946), was an early case that examined federal kidnapping. Chatwin was an elderly man accused of kidnapping a 15 year-old girl in order to take her hand in marriage, as he was part of a religious cult. The girl first came to live with Chatwin, employed as a housekeeper, but he eventually convinced her that they should marry. When she became pregnant, her parents notified authorities, who took her into custody.

While at a show with a juvenile probation officer, the girl asked the officer to stay by herself for a little longer. Once the officer consented, she left the theater and went out into the streets. There, she met two of Chatwin's daughters. They convinced her to go with them to Mexico where she could legally marry Chatwin. She stayed with Chatwin for three years before being found. Neither the girl's parents nor the juvenile probation officers consented to her travels, or her staying with Chatwin.

A federal grand jury charged the two daughters as well as Chatwin with kidnapping. The government argued that the three had unlawfully enticed the girl into leaving her rightful guardians and confining her against their will. The girl's presence at Chatwin's home satisfied the “ransom, reward, or otherwise” portion of the statute, and the girl's age nullified her ability to consent.

The Supreme Court rejected the government's claim. It held that, for kidnapping to exist, there must be an unlawful physical or mental restraint placed on the victim. There was no proof that the girl was held against her will, or that she was unable to leave Chatwin's presence. The deeply-held beliefs of the girl are what compelled her to stay with Chatwin, not unlawful manipulation. Addressing her age, the court asserted that, generally, fourteen is the age where one becomes mentally competent. Since the girl was fifteen, her decisions were lawfully her own. Thus, the essential element of kidnapping, involuntary seizure and detention of another, was absent in Chatwin. Note, however, that Congress has modified the federal kidnapping statute many times since the Supreme Court decided Chatwin. It is quite uncertain that this fact pattern, if it arose today, would produce the same results.

Emphasized in many cases regarding the Federal Kidnapping Act is the purpose behind it. Congress designed the act primarily to assist law enforcement and officials in capturing and punishing kidnappers, who ran rampant at the time of the Act's passing. The law's aim was to allow easier capture and prosecution of those who kidnapped children, or held people for ransom. When a federal kidnapping case is heard, a large factor in the court's ultimate decision is how the alleged crime lines up with Congress's original intentions for the Act. The farther the crime strays from what Congress intended to target, the less likely the courts will be to uphold a federal kidnapping conviction.

When the fact pattern does align with the conduct the Act was meant to dissuade, defenses to a federal kidnapping charge may still exist. As shown in the case above, if a supposed “victim” consented to going with a defendant, no kidnapping occurred. Intentions are also a factor as to whether conduct is kidnapping, as one must knowingly or intentionally confine or transport a victim by force in kidnapping scenarios. Thus, if a defendant confines or transports a “victim”, but does it without knowledge or intent, kidnapping as defined by federal law does not exist.

Kidnapping at the federal level can be punished by imprisonment for up to life. Even attempted kidnapping can be punished by up to twenty years in prison.

Law Offices of Allan Marain

Allan Marain is a kidnapping lawyer. He has been at it for forty-five years and is still going strong. If you or a member of your family are charged, or may be charged, with kidnapping, call them. There is no charge for their initial conference.

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