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Hostage Taking

18 U.S. Code § 1203 - Hostage Taking Law

Taking hostages is a crime in every state in the Union. Still, when the taking of hostages crosses international lines or is intended to coerce a government to take action, it's a federal crime under U.S. law under Title 18 U.S.C. 1203.

Federal hostage-taking is a serious offense punishable by up to life in prison—and if the hostage dies, it can even result in the death penalty if the defendant is convicted.

Federal Hostage Taking Law - 18 U.S. Code § 1203

18 U.S. Code § 1203 says, “whoever, whether inside or outside the United States, seizes or detains and threatens to injure, kill, or continue to detain someone to compel a third person or a governmental organization to do or abstain from doing any act as an explicit condition for the release of the person detained, or attempts or conspires, shall be punished by years of imprisonment, or if the death of any person results, will be punished by death or life imprisonment.”

In other words, 18 U.S. Code Section 1203 describes that detaining somebody to force a third party, such as law enforcement, to do any act is guilty of a felony offense.

Perhaps when fleeing a bank, the robbers grab the bank teller and force them into the getaway car so they can escape. After driving away and avoiding the police, they let them go because they were no longer needed.

Under this federal statute, by detaining the bank teller and holding them hostage, the bank robbers could face a sentence of life in federal prison. The robbers could face a death sentence if the bank teller were killed while detained.

The federal crime of bank robbery is defined under Title 18, Section 2113, as part of a comprehensive statute that was expanded to include other theft-related crimes. Our federal criminal defense lawyers will look closely at this topic below.

18 U.S.C. § 1203 Explained

A hostage taker is described in 18 U.S.C. 1203 as anyone who "seizes or detains and threatens to kill, to injure, or to continue to detain another person to compel a third person or a governmental organization to do or abstain from doing any act as an explicit or implicit condition for the release of the person detained, or attempts or conspires to do so..."

The law was enacted in 1984 to adopt the International Convention Against the Taking of Hostages. It specifies when the U.S. government has jurisdiction over hostage-taking inside and outside the U.S. However, 18 U.S.C. 1203 also defines what the law does not cover. Some of the specifics:

The law is written to apply primarily to hostage situations outside the U.S. or situations in which the hostage taker tries to compel a government organization to action. The U.S. claims jurisdiction outside the U.S. if:

  • The hostage taker is a U.S. national;
  • The hostage taker is captured in the U.S., OR
  • The U.S. is the government that was compelled by the hostage situation.

The law typically does not apply to hostage situations by U.S. nationals on American soil unless the U.S. is the government being compelled.

For example, if a U.S. citizen or legal resident takes a hostage on American soil for personal reasons (e.g., to escape capture), that hostage situation would be covered under state laws rather than federal law.

What Are Some Examples of Hostage-Taking?

EXAMPLE 1: David is a U.S. citizen who becomes indoctrinated by a terrorist organization and leaves the country to join militant forces in the Middle East.

Hostage Taking under Federal Law

David oversees the capture of a tour bus and holds the victim's hostage, demanding that the U.K. release a political prisoner. David could be charged under 18 U.S.C. 1203 because he is a U.S. national taking hostages overseas, even though he was not trying to compel the U.S. government to do something.

EXAMPLE 2: Adrian is a citizen of another country who hijacks a Swiss airplane on the tarmac of a European airport, demanding that the Swiss freeze the bank accounts of a political enemy. Adrian escapes capture but is discovered living undercover in the U.S. two years later. Adrian can be charged under federal law because although he is not a U.S. citizen and did not take U.S. citizens hostage, he committed an international hostage crime and was apprehended in the U.S.

EXAMPLE 3: Samuel commits armed robbery at a bank in Southern California, but the police surround the place before he can escape. He takes a group of bank customers hostage, demanding safe passage out of the bank to avoid arrest. Samuel would NOT be charged under 18 U.S.C. 1203 because he is not attempting to coerce the federal government. His actions would, however, be prosecutable under California state laws.

What Are the Penalties for This Crime?

Federal law treats hostage-taking as a very serious offense with potentially severe penalties. While specific sentences will vary depending on the facts of each case, if you are convicted on any offense of hostage-taking under U.S.C. 1203, the federal judge can hand down a prison sentence for any length of time, all the way up to life imprisonment.

However, if anyone dies due to the hostage situation (whether hostage or not), the penalty increases significantly. Any federal hostage situation resulting in death results in either life imprisonment or the death penalty.

What Are the Related Federal Crimes?

A person accused of taking hostages under U.S.C. 1203 may also be charged with additional or similar federal crimes based on the circumstances. These may include, but are not limited to:

  • Kidnapping (18 U.S.C. 1201): Abducting and holding someone for ransom (a federal crime when interstate or international boundaries are crossed);
  • Receiving Ransom Money (18 U.S.C. 1202): Collecting a ransom (e.g., money, property) in conjunction with federal kidnapping;
  • Bank robbery (18 U.S.C. 2113): also includes robbery of an armored truck or bank messenger, night depository, and an automatic teller machine;
  • International parental kidnapping (18 U.S.C. 1204);
  • Federal assault with a deadly weapon (18 U.S.C. § 2113(d));
  • Federal conspiracy statute (18 U.S.C. § 371).

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

Criminal Defense Attorney for Federal Crimes

Kidnapping can also involve forcing someone into a vehicle and taking them to another location or even locking them up to prevent escape.

If you or a family member is under investigation or already indicted for hostage-taking under United States Code, Title 18, Section 1203, contact our experienced team of federal criminal defense lawyers to review the case.  

Through negotiations with the federal prosecutor, we may be able to work out a favorable resolution. If guilt is not in doubt, then perhaps a plea agreement is the best defense strategy, but we are prepared to take the case to trial if necessary.

Eisner Gorin LLP is a top-rated criminal defense law firm providing legal representation for federal matters throughout the United States. You can contact us by phone or fill out the contact form.

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