Laws on Holding Someone Hostage

You can get a life or death sentence for holding someone hostage.
••• Thinkstock Images/Comstock/Getty Images

A hostage is a person or entity being detained or held by another party either for criminal reasons or for criminal purposes. Laws related to hostages taking are very stiff in the United States. Under the Constitution, even the law enforcement agencies are not allowed to detain a person who is suspected of committing a crime. They must charge him in court with the alleged offense.

Hostage Taking Act

Taking a person hostage is a federal criminal offense as stipulated in the Hostage Taking Act. Under this law, an offender can be charged in the federal courts even if the crime is committed outside the U.S. if either the offender or the hostage is a national of the United States. In this case, the federal government can seek extradition of the offender to the United States. These provisions are usually in line with the already established international laws related to hostage taking.

Life or Death Sentence

Under the Hostage Taking Act, except when the hostage is detained for the efforts of preventing a crime from occurring or pending further investigation by the authorities, any person, whether within the U.S. or outside the country, who detains a person or a group of people threatening to kill or injure can be punished with a life sentence. If the hostage dies, the hostage taker can get the death sentence.


It is not an offense under the Hostage Taking Act if the hostage action occurred outside the U.S., unless the offender or the person detained is an American national. This means that if an American citizen takes a person of another nationality in another country hostage, he can be charged in the U.S., even though the country where the crime was committed can still charge him under its own laws.

When Federal Law Applies

In accordance to the International Convention Against Taking of Hostages, the federal laws do not apply when the perpetrators of the crime are within the U.S. The perpetrators can only be prosecuted and charged under the state or local laws, but cannot be prosecuted under the federal statute. The federal statute applies only if the offender took the hostage in order to compel an action on the part of the government of the United States or if the victim or the offender is not an American citizen.

Related Articles