When most people think of kidnapping, they think of strangers persuading children into their cars, swooping in to snatch them, or sneaking into houses at night. These things do happen, but most kidnappings are, in reality, committed by non-custodial parents who are violating custody agreements or involved in other family disputes. Parents often feel that they are the better caregiver for their child, but if they violate a custody order, they face kidnapping or other related charges.
There are several laws in Pennsylvania that define kidnapping, and many ways in which a person can be considered guilty of the charge.
Kidnapping is committed when a person confines someone else unlawfully, in a place of isolation and for a significant length of time, or if a person removes another person unlawfully a “substantial distance under the circumstances from the place where he is found” with one of these intentions:
- To interfere with government or public officials doing their duty
- To hold the person for reward or ransom
- To terrorize the person or someone else or injure the victim bodily
- To help in fleeing from or committing a felony
Under these circumstances, kidnapping is considered a first-degree felony.
If a person does one of the following, he is guilty of unlawful restraint:
- Holds someone else in a condition of involuntary servitude
- Unlawfully prevents someone from leaving in circumstances that put him at risk of being seriously injured
Committed against an adult, unlawful restraint is a first-degree misdemeanor. Committed against a minor, this charge is a second-degree felony.
Interference With Custody of Children
One of the most common forms of kidnapping is interfering with the custody of children. If a person recklessly or knowingly entices or takes a minor under the age of 18 away from their parent or legal guardian, or other lawful custodian, he or she has interfered with the custody of children.
Unless the offender knew his actions would cause serious concern and alarm for the safety of the child he took, this charge is a third-degree felony. If he did know it would cause the concern, it becomes a second-degree felony.
The following circumstances will make the charge a second-degree felony:
- The defendant has visitation rights or partial custody
- The defendant had the child for less than 24 hours
- The defendant had “good cause” for his actions
There are varying degrees of offense levels in kidnapping cases, which depend on the circumstances surrounding the offense and the type of kidnapping.
- First-degree felony: fines of up to $20,000 and prison terms of up to 20 years
- Second-degree felony: fines of up to $25,000 and prison terms of up to 10 years
- Second-degree misdemeanor: fines of up to $5,000 and prison terms of up to 2 years
It’s important to remember that kidnapping charges can have consequences in family court that are unforeseen, because they frequently are committed by someone violating a custody agreement.
Kidnapping Charge Defenses
Kidnapping charges often come out of complex situations. They are serious charges, and are looked at and dealt with very seriously, but there are defenses against them. As an example, one defense could be that the person was not acting in violation of the custody order. Children often prefer one parent over the other and try to stay with the one they prefer, which breaks the custody agreement. A parent can also say that they removed their child from the custodial parent because the custodial parent was abusive or doing drugs. Many times, concerns for the safety of the child outweigh the violation of the custody agreement.
Examples of circumstances that may lead to a person being charged with kidnapping include:
- Preventing a parent from having access to their child
- Taking a child away from a parent they are unfamiliar with and taking them to a different state
- Breaking a joint custody agreement for more than 24 hours
- Taking your own child away from the parent who has primary custody
Not every case is a clearly defined kidnapping case. These charges often come about due to complex situations.
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