Under common law kidnapping was only a misdemeanor, but in most states of the United States it is now punishable by death or life imprisonment if there are no extenuating circumstances. The kidnapping and murder of the son of Charles A. Lindbergh in 1932 led to a federal statute prescribing severe penalties for transporting the victims of kidnapping across state or national boundaries. The practice of kidnapping, in the wider and not strictly legal sense, has been known since the beginnings of history. It was common as a method for procuring slaves, and it has also been employed by brigands and revolutionaries to obtain money through ransom or to hold hostages whose safe release was dependent on the freeing of political prisoners.
In criminal law, kidnapping is the taking away or asportation of a person against the person's will, usually to hold the person in false imprisonment, a confinement without legal authority. This is often done for ransom or in furtherance of another crime. A majority of jurisdictions in the United States retain the "asportation" element for kidnapping, where the victim must be confined in a bounded area against their will and moved. Any amount of movement will suffice for the requirement, even if it is moving the abductee to a house next door. In the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, however, the asportation element has been abolished. Note that under early English common law, the asportation element required that the victim be moved outside the realm of England or overseas in order for an abduction to be considered "kidnapping".
According to the National Crime Information Center:
As of December 31, 2007, there were 105,229 active missing person records in NCIC. Juveniles under the age of 18 accounted for 54,648 (51.93%) of the records, and 12,362 (11.75%) were for juveniles between the ages of 18 and 20. During 2007, 814,967 missing person records were entered into NCIC, a decrease of 2.53% from the 836,131 records entered in 2006.
Missing person records cleared or canceled during the same period totaled 820,212. Reasons for these removals include: the subject was located by a law enforcement agency; the individual returned home; or the record had to be removed by the entering agency due to a determination that the record was invalid.
In 2007, there were 518 records entered as Abducted by a Stranger; 299,787 entered as Runaway; and 2,919 entered as Abducted by Non-Custodial Parent. This only accounts for 303,224 entries of the 418,967 entered, or 72.4%, which is an increase from 297,632 entries of the 836,131 entered, or 35.6%, in 2006. The Missing Person Circumstances field is optional and has been available since July 1999 when the NCIC 2000 came online. This is not an accurate reflection of the actual circumstances of all the entries.
It is inconclusive at this point as to whether these disappearances were kidnappings for money or for other reasons, but around 28% of the 418,967 entries could be kidnappings. It is premature at this time to say that kidnapping for any reason is nonexistent in the United States.
Following the highly publicized 1932 Lindbergh kidnapping, Congress authorized the FBI to investigate kidnapping at a time when the Bureau was expanding in size and authority. The Bureau made kidnap for ransom a special priority, and continues to do so today. It pursues kidnap cases ferociously; agents who have rescued kidnap victims have been known to describe these rescues as personal high points of their careers.
There are several deterrents to kidnapping in the United States of America. Among these are:
The harsh sentences imposed and the poor risk-to-benefit ratio compared with other crimes have caused kidnap for profit virtually to die out in the United States. One notorious failed example of kidnap for ransom was the Chowchilla bus kidnapping, in which 26 children were abducted with the intention of bringing in a $5 million ransom. Kidnappings for profit that do occur in or into the United States today often are often connected to other ongoing criminal activity, such as human trafficking.
In the past, and presently in some parts of the world (such as southern Sudan), kidnapping is a common means used to obtain slaves and money through ransom. In more recent times, kidnapping in the form of shanghaiing (or "pressganging") men was used to supply merchant ships in the 19th century with sailors, whom the law considered unfree labour.
Kidnapping can also take place in the context of deprogramming, a now rare practice used to convince someone to give up his or her commitment to a new religious movement, called a cult or sect by critics, that the subject's family members consider harmful, prompting their hiring of a deprogrammer.
According to a 2003 Domestic Violence Report in Colorado, out of a survey of 189 incidents, most people (usually white females) are taken from their homes or residence by a present or former spouse or significant other. They are usually taken by force, not by weapon, and usually the victims are not injured when they are freed.
Child abduction can refer to children being taken away without their parents' consent but with the consent of the child. In England and Wales, it is child abduction to take away a child under the age of 16 without parental consent.
It would be difficult to kidnap without also committing false imprisonment, which is the common-law offense of intentionally or recklessly detaining the victim. The use of force to take and detain will also be regarded as an assault, and other, related offences may also be committed before, during, or after the detention.