Federal Hostage Taking Law – 18 U.S. Code § 1203: Explained and Analyzed
The federal hostage taking statute, 18 U.S. Code § 1203, is an important law that prohibits the seizing or detaining of a person in order to compel another party to meet demands. This article will provide an in-depth explanation and analysis of this law, including its background, key provisions, penalties, and defenses.
Background of 18 U.S. Code § 1203
The federal hostage taking law was enacted by Congress in 1984 as part of the Comprehensive Crime Control Act. It implemented the International Convention Against the Taking of Hostages, which the United States had signed in 1979.
Prior to this law, there was a gap in federal law regarding hostage taking scenarios that occurred outside the United States or that were designed to compel the U.S. government to take some action. The new statute established federal jurisdiction over these types of hostage situations.
The purpose of 18 U.S. Code § 1203 was to send a strong message that the U.S. would not tolerate the taking of hostages, whether American citizens or foreign nationals. It brought the country into compliance with the international treaty and filled a void in the federal criminal code.
Key Provisions of the Hostage Taking Statute
There are several key elements that prosecutors must prove to establish a violation of 18 U.S. Code § 1203:
- Seizing, detaining, threatening, or harming a person – The law applies very broadly to any act of seizing, detaining, threatening, or physically harming another individual. Even a brief detention against the person’s will qualifies.
- Purpose of compelling action – The hostage taking must be for the purpose of compelling some particular action or inaction from a third party. This third party is often the government but does not have to be.
- Explicit or implicit condition for release – The hostage taker must be demanding the third party action as an explicit or implicit condition for the release of the hostage. There must be a quid pro quo involved.
- Jurisdictional nexus – The hostage taking must either occur outside the U.S. or within the U.S. with the purpose of compelling the U.S. government. Purely domestic scenarios may still qualify if they affect interstate or foreign commerce.
In addition, attempting or conspiring to take hostages also violates the statute even if the plan is not carried out. The law applies no matter the nationality of the perpetrator, as long as federal jurisdiction is established.
Penalties for Violating the Hostage Taking Statute
The penalties for being convicted under 18 U.S. Code § 1203 are quite severe. The maximum punishment depends primarily on whether the hostage dies during the incident:
- If victim dies – Death or life imprisonment
- If victim is not released – Up to life imprisonment
- All other cases – Up to 20 years imprisonment
Fines and terms of supervised release may also be imposed on top of any prison sentence.
Perhaps the harshest penalty is that the death sentence can apply if a hostage dies during a hostage taking scenario that was intended to compel the U.S. government in some way. This demonstrates how seriously the law takes these acts.
Federal vs. State Jurisdiction Over Hostage Taking
An important aspect of 18 U.S. Code § 1203 is that it is primarily intended to establish federal jurisdiction over international hostage scenarios or those meant to compel the U.S. government in some way.
Purely domestic hostage situations with no federal nexus are usually prosecuted under state laws instead. However, federal charges may still apply concurrently if the act affects interstate or foreign commerce.
Prosecutors have wide discretion in determining whether to bring charges under the federal hostage taking statute or applicable state laws in any given case.
Defenses to Federal Hostage Taking Charges
While 18 U.S. Code § 1203 covers a broad range of activity, there are some potential defenses that a defendant can raise:
- No intent to compel action – If there is evidence showing the detention was not actually intended to force a third party to do or not do something, this negates a key element of the crime.
- No threat to injure – Without any threat to harm the hostage, it is difficult to prove the detention was meant to compel action.
- No federal nexus – If the alleged hostage taking occurred domestically and did not target the federal government, the federal law may not apply.
- Duress – There may be an argument the defendant acted under immediate threat of death or serious harm to themselves or others.
- Mental condition – The defendant can argue they lacked the mental capacity to form the intent required by the statute.
An experienced federal criminal defense attorney can analyze the specific facts of any case to determine if a viable defense exists.
Analysis of Key Court Decisions
There have been several important federal court decisions interpreting and applying 18 U.S. Code § 1203 over the years. These precedents have helped shape prosecutors’ use of the law.
United States v. Carrion-Caliz (1991)
This Fifth Circuit case held that a hostage is “seized” or “detained” within the meaning of the statute whenever they are confined or held against their will for an appreciable period of time. Even brief detentions qualify.
United States v. Lopez-Flores (1995)
Here, the Ninth Circuit ruled that a hostage’s initial agreement to accompany the hostage taker does not prevent a later “seizure” or “detention” under the law. This means even a voluntary accompaniment can become an unlawful hostage taking.
United States v. Sierra-Velasquez (2002)
In the context of alien smuggling, the Ninth Circuit found there was detention under the statute once the smugglers began holding people in a manner not originally agreed upon. At that point, it became hostage taking.
Examples of Hostage Taking Scenarios
To better understand how 18 U.S. Code § 1203 operates, it helps to look at some examples of situations that could lead to charges:
- A bank robber holds a customer hostage and threatens to harm them unless police let the robber escape safely. (Domestic scenario affecting interstate commerce).
- Terrorists capture American tourists abroad and threaten to behead them if their demands are not met. (International scenario).
- A mentally unstable person takes hostages on a commercial airplane and demands it fly to another country. (Purpose of compelling U.S. government action).
- A drug trafficker holds an informant hostage and demands the DEA drop the charges against him in exchange for the informant’s release. (Attempt to compel U.S. law enforcement).
- An extremist group kidnaps a U.S. diplomat on foreign soil to force policy changes. (International act targeting government).
- A parent takes their child across state lines in violation of a custody order and threatens harm unless the other parent drops legal proceedings. (Interstate activity).
The federal hostage taking statute, 18 U.S. Code § 1203, provides an important tool for prosecuting these dangerous crimes in scenarios affecting the U.S. government or interstate/foreign commerce.
The law implements an international treaty condemning hostage taking and carries stiff penalties, especially if the victim dies during the incident. Prosecutors have used the statute in a variety of situations to send a strong message that this conduct will not be tolerated.
Defendants facing charges do have opportunities to raise legal defenses challenging the government’s ability to prove each element of the crime. But given the broad scope of the law, a conviction is difficult to avoid in many cases.
The hostage taking statute will likely continue serving an important role in the federal criminal justice system for the foreseeable future.