kidnapping (law) | Definition

Doc's CJ Glossary by Adam J. McKee
Course: Introduction / Criminal Law

Kidnapping is a criminal offense that involves the unlawful and intentional taking or confinement of another person, against their will, by force or threat of force, deception, or other means.

Under common law, the ancient system of law which originated in England, kidnapping was defined quite simply. It involved forcibly taking someone away from their country and moving them to another. This was a relatively limited definition. The key element here was the transportation of the person, specifically across national boundaries. If someone was abducted and kept within their country, this act wouldn’t be considered kidnapping under common law.

This definition worked centuries ago when countries were at war and citizens could be captured as hostages or slaves. However, as societies evolved, this definition became too narrow and failed to cover many cases where a person was taken against their will but not transported out of their country.

Modern Definition of Kidnapping

With the evolution of legal systems and societies, the definition of kidnapping expanded. The Model Penal Code (MPC), a guideline used to assist U.S. states in developing their criminal codes, provides a modern definition of kidnapping. It covers more ground than the old common law definition.

According to the MPC, kidnapping involves unlawfully and intentionally removing another person a substantial distance from where they were found or unlawfully confining another person in isolation for a substantial period. The MPC definition adds two significant elements to the common law definition: confinement and time. This definition considers not only the act of taking someone away but also the act of isolating them against their will. It looks at the distance moved and the duration of isolation, thus creating a broader definition of the crime.

The Role of Intent and Force in Kidnapping

In both common law and MPC definitions, intent plays a crucial role in the crime of kidnapping. The perpetrator must have a clear intention to forcibly take or confine a person. If someone unintentionally confines another person, that wouldn’t be kidnapping.

The use of force or the threat of force is another key element in defining kidnapping. This includes physical force, where the victim is physically restrained or transported, and psychological force, where the victim is deceived or threatened to comply.

Beyond the Definition: Types and Degrees of Kidnapping

In modern law, there are different types and degrees of kidnapping, depending on the circumstances and the severity of the crime. For example, if the kidnapper not only confines the victim but also inflicts physical harm, it may be considered a higher degree of kidnapping.

The motives behind kidnapping also vary. Some kidnappers seek a ransom, others may aim to facilitate another crime, and some may have political motivations.


The definition of kidnapping has evolved significantly from its roots in common law, where it was narrowly defined as forcibly taking someone to another country. The modern definition under the Model Penal Code broadens this to include forcibly taking someone a substantial distance or confining them for a substantial period. This wider definition reflects the many ways in which kidnapping can be committed in our complex modern societies. Intent and force remain core components of the crime, though motives and methods can vary widely.

[ Glossary ]

Last Modified: 05/28/2023

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