Federal "Kidnapping" Laws (18 U.S.C. § 1201)
Explained by Nevada Criminal Defense Attorneys

Kidnapping a person over state lines is a serious federal crime. Possible penalties include a life sentence and maybe the death penalty. But an experienced Nevada criminal defense lawyer may succeed in negotiating a favorable resolution including a charge reduction or even a full dismissal.

This page provides an explanation of the federal crime of kidnapping in Nevada. Scroll down to learn about what constitutes kidnapping, how to fight kidnapping charges, and possible penalties upon conviction.


The legal definition of "kidnapping" under federal law is when someone unlawfully and willfully seizes, kidnaps, or abducts another person over state lines. Carrying someone away and holding him/her for ransom also qualifies as kidnapping. If the kidnapping never crosses state lines or affects interstate commerce, then it is not a federal crime and may be litigated only in state court.

The common conception of kidnapping is of a person physically taking the victim and carrying him/her away. But note that kidnapping also comprises situations where the victim is forcibly conveyed by any form of transportation without the kidnapper being present. Searchlight NV criminal defense attorney Michael Becker offers an example:

Example: Tex abducts a woman from Las Vegas and takes her to the train station. He then puts her on a train to Phoenix. If caught, Tex could be booked at the Clark County Detention Center on federal kidnapping charges for unlawfully seizing and taking someone over state lines. It does not matter that Tex left the victim on the train and did not cross state lines himself.

Also note that if the victim in the above example passed away before the train crossed into Arizona, Tex could still be liable on federal kidnapping charges in Nevada. Whether a kidnapping victim is alive or dead when crossing state lines does not affect the applicability of federal law.

Burden of proof

In order for a person to be convicted of kidnapping in federal court, the U.S. Attorney's Office has to prove two things:

  1. The defendant kidnapped the victim, and
  2. The kidnapping crossed state lines

But under certain circumstances, the prosecution does not have to prove interstate travel. If a kidnapping suspect does not release the victim within twenty-four hours of the kidnapping, the court will presume that the victim has been transported in interstate commerce. Goodsprings NV criminal defense attorney Neil Shouse illustrates this:

Example: Pat kidnaps his ex-girlfriend from her Reno home and keeps her locked in his house for two days before releasing her. If Pat is caught, the U.S. Marshals Service could book Pat at the Washoe County Detention Center on federal kidnapping charges because twenty-four hours passed between the victim's seizure and release.

If the case in the above example goes to trial, the court will automatically presume that Pat took the victim across state lines. However, this presumption is "rebuttable," which means that the court may change its assumption as long as Pat's defense attorney succeeds in showing the court that he kept the victim within state lines.

International Parental Kidnapping (18 U.S.C. § 1204)

18 U.S.C. § 1201 does not apply to parents kidnapping their child. Those cases are litigated in state court. But there is a federal law prohibiting a person taking a child under sixteen outside of the U.S. with the intent to "obstruct the lawful exercise of parental rights." A common example is a divorced parent trying to take a child away from the ex-spouse by leaving the country.

Federal law vs. Nevada law

Unlike federal kidnapping law, Nevada kidnapping law creates two separate crimes: First-degree kidnapping, and second-degree kidnapping. First degree comprises more egregious cases such as those involving ransom or kidnapping for the purpose of committing rape.

Also unlike federal kidnapping law, the Nevada crime of kidnapping has another "element" that the prosecution has to prove in order to win a conviction. In Nevada, a person can be found liable for kidnapping only if the victim was physically moved during the incident (called "asportation"). Federal law has not asportation requirement.

Like federal law, Nevada state kidnapping law carries harsh prison sentences including a possible term of life. Learn more in our article on the Nevada kidnapping laws.


Each federal kidnapping case is unique. Therefore the facts of a particular case determine the best ways to fight criminal allegations. Below are three typical defenses to federal kidnapping charges in Nevada:

  • There is not enough evidence to prove guilt: The most common defense of all criminal cases is that the prosecution cannot produce sufficient evidence to demonstrate that the defendant is guilty. If the court finds that a reasonable doubt exists as to the defendant's culpability of federal kidnapping charges, the defendant should be found not liable.
  • The defendant lacked intent to kidnap: A key element of federal kidnapping law is that the suspect willfully kidnapped someone else. Therefore if the defense attorney can show that the defendant did not knowingly kidnap anyone or that the whole incident was a misunderstanding, then the defendant committed no crime.
  • Law enforcement mishandled evidence: Whenever cops may have fallen short of adhering to proper constitutional procedures while searching for evidence in a federal kidnapping case, the defense attorney may file a Nevada motion to suppress evidence. This motion requests that the Nevada Federal Court throw out any evidence obtained from the illegal police search. If the court then grants the motion, chances are that the prosecution's case will be severely weakened and possibly dismissed.
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A federal judge in Nevada has a lot of leeway when imposing punishments for a kidnapping conviction. The sentence may be any number of years up to a life sentence in Federal Prison. And if the victim died from the kidnapping, the defendant may be given the death penalty in Nevada.

Similarly, a federal conviction of conspiracy to kidnap carries a possible penalty of up to a life sentence. And a federal conviction of attempted kidnapping carries up to twenty years in prison.

Finally, a judge may impose no less than twenty years in prison for kidnapping when the victim is a child under eighteen and the alleged kidnapper is at least eighteen and is not the child's parent, grandparent, sibling, aunt, uncle or legal guardian.

Note that all federal kidnapping cases in Nevada are heard in either the Lloyd D. George Federal Courthouse in Las Vegas, or the Bruce R. Thompson Federal Courthouse in Reno.

Kidnapping for Ransom (18 U.S.C. § 1202)

it is a federal crime to receive, possess or dispose of ransom money that the person knows was used for ransom in a federal kidnapping crime. The punishment includes a fine and/or up to ten years in prison.

Meanwhile, a person who transports or transfers in interstate commerce any proceeds of a federal or state kidnapping crime faces more than one year in prison. Furthermore, the act of receiving, concealing, possessing or disposing of such proceeds while knowing that they were illegally obtained faces a fine and/or up to ten years in prison.

Kidnapping to take hostages (18 U.S.C. § 1203)

A conviction for seizing and threatening to kill, injure, or continue to detain another person in order to compel a third party to do any act as a condition for release carries up to a life sentence. If the victim dies, the Nevada federal court may impose death. Note that a conspiracy to take hostages or an attempt to take hostages carries the same penalties.

International Parental Kidnapping (18 U.S.C. § 1204)

Whoever removes or retains a child under sixteen from the U.S. with intent to obstruct the lawful exercise of parental rights faces a penalty of a fine and/or up to three years in prison. Note that a conviction for an attempt to commit this crime also carries a fine and/or up to three years in prison.

Nevada state kidnapping penalties (NRS 200.320)

First-degree kidnapping is a category A felony in Nevada carrying a possible life sentence. Meanwhile, second-degree kidnapping is a category B felony in Nevada carrying up to fifteen years in Nevada state prison. Note that the judge may increase the penalty if the kidnapping involved a deadly weapon.

Charged? Call. . . .

If you have been arrested on federal "kidnapping" charges in Nevada, our Nevada federal criminal defense attorneys at 702-DEFENSE (702-333-3673) are happy to consult with you free of charge. Our aim is to give you the best defense available in an attempt to win the best outcome available for your case.

To learn about California laws, visit our page on California kidnapping laws per Penal Code 207 208 209 & 209.5.


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