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Origins Of The Offense In English Law

Kidnapping laws have been found as far back as three thousand years, where it was written in ancient Jewish law that "Anyone who kidnaps another and either sells him or still has him when he is caught must be put to death" (Exod. 21:16). The earliest ancient English kidnapping law was called "plagium," and was also punishable by death. The term "kidnapping" is said to have emerged in English law in the late 1600s, referring to the abduction of persons who were then transported to the North American colonies for slavery. William Blackstone, writing in the late 1700s, described the law of kidnapping as the "forcible abduction or stealing away of a man, woman, or child, from their own country, and sending them into another" (p. 955). "This is unquestionably a very heinous crime, as it robs the king of his subjects, banishes a man from his country, and may in its consequences be productive of the most cruel and disagreeable hardships; and therefore the common law of England has punished it with fine, imprisonment, and pillory" (pp. 955–956).

The focus of these early laws, at least in form if not practice, seems to be on the wrongfulness of transporting someone against their will to a different country or place. Given limits of transportation centuries ago, being carried off to a different country was likely to be permanent. Today, however, the law recognizes the additional evil of detaining someone against their will even without transporting him or her to a different region.

The old English common law also contained very similar laws against "abduction," such as "the forcible abduction and marriage" of a woman (Blackstone, p. 951). The stealing of children from a father was also criminal, as this was seen as not just the stealing of the father's children, but also his "heir" (pp. 696–697). By contrast, the rationale behind the modern American laws is based on liberty, even for children, as opposed to a loss on the part of their parents or anyone else. The terms "abduction" and "kidnapping" are often used interchangeably. Where they may have had different historical connotations, their use in modern parlance has gradually become synonymous.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawKidnapping - Origins Of The Offense In English Law, Impact Of The Lindbergh Kidnapping, Elements Of Kidnapping And Related Offenses