Memphis Kidnapping Lawyer
The kidnapping of 15-year-old Elizabeth Thomas on March 13, 2017 in Culleoka, Tennessee by her former forensics teacher at the Culleoka Unit School, Tad Cummins, has brought Tennessee’s ‘toothless’ kidnapping laws into the national spotlight. The Tennessee Legislature has been at the butt end of this national scrutiny, and the prosecutor in the Thomas kidnapping case, District Attorney Brent Cooper of the 22nd Judicial Circuit, has hopes to meet in person with Tennessee legislators to persuade them to change the state’s kidnapping laws. They hope to do so when they reconvene next January and have the ability to introduce new legislation.
The major issue in the Elizabeth Thomas kidnapping that Cooper wants replaced, is the statute in the Tennessee Code which states that children older than 12-years-old have the legal right to decide if they want to leave their families with an individual who would otherwise be defined as a ‘kidnapper’, UNLESS the confinement or removal of the child older than 12 “is accomplished by threat, force or fraud.”
This means Mr. Cooper must be able to prove that Miss Thomas either had her freedom restricted or was unlawfully removed from her family, and furthermore that Mr. Cummins used “coercion, force or fraud, or something to that same effect.”
Initially Mr. Cummins was only charged with sexual contact with a minor. Cooper later added an aggravated kidnapping charge since Cummins groomed Miss Thomas and was armed when they were found together weeks after Thomas’ disappearance. Grooming means the act of someone making a connection with a child in order to soothe his or her inhibitions with a subsequent goal of sexual abuse.
If Miss Thomas testifies that she left on her own volition then Cooper will have to give circumstantial evidence that she was coerced into being attracted to, and wanting to leave her life behind with Cummins.
The Thomas kidnapping has highlighted a very messy area of Tennessee’s kidnapping laws. What this page aims to do is give you a comprehensive overview of what kidnapping in Tennessee entails, the punishments that are involved with each kind of kidnapping, the statue of limitations, the statistics, as well as the potential changes in kidnapping laws. If you are charged with kidnapping, it is critical you find an experienced criminal defense attorney.
What is kidnapping?
Kidnapping can at times, and in certain jurisdictions, be hard to define. In general kidnapping is the physical asporting (moving) of another person without lawful authority and without the other person’s consent, including using the abduction as a way to get to some kind of nefarious objective. It also can be defined as the unlawful seizing/carrying away of a person by fraud or force, or detaining someone against their will in order to later take that person away later on.
Some of the purposes or ‘nefarious objectives’ that can constitute a kidnapping include a person with the intent to gain some kind of reward or ransom, taking flight after a felony is commissioned, terrorizing or causing harm to the victim, and purposefully interfering with a political or governmental function.
There are federal laws that apply to all kidnappings, including the Lindbergh Act that was established in 1932 that pertains to interstate kidnappings. For the most part state laws differ in how kidnapping is defined and how it is punished.
In Tennessee, kidnapping is defined as “the crime of taking an individual against his or her will to an undisclosed location”, and it also entails false imprisonment in which the kidnapper exposes their victim to any kind of legitimate risk of bodily injury. In Tennessee, false imprisonment is technically defined as the act in which a person knowingly confines or removes another individual unlawfully in a way of substantially interfering with the other person’s civil liberties.
According to 39-13-303 of the Tennessee Code, “Kidnapping is false imprisonment as defined in 39-13-302 (above definition), under the circumstances exposing the other person to substantial risk of bodily injury.”
The following bullet points are the key elements of kidnapping that break down both the definitions of false imprisonment and kidnapping, and can help give a better idea of what technically constitutes a kidnapping.
- Confinement, taking or restraint — For many states confinement is the key element of any kidnapping, and these actions must be intentional and with the intentions of inducing bodily harm to the victim, using the victim as a means of escape like a hostage situation, holding a person for ransom, involuntarily imprisoning a victim as a servant, or confining the person as a means to disrupt the government. These intentions do not need to be met to constitute a kidnapping.
- Moving the victim — Many states require victims to be moved a certain amount of distance, but predominately that distance is very minimal, an example being moved across the street from one house to another. Some states do not require the victim to be moved to charge someone with kidnapping.
- Consent — This is the big element that is playing a major role in the Elizabeth Thomas case, and if the victim consents to the confinement then technically in many places, including Tennessee if the victim is at least 12-years-old, a kidnapping didn’t occur.
- Force and threats — This is the key element into Brent Cooper’s prosecution against Tad Cummins, and some states don’t require force for a person to be considered kidnapped, while others do. Using any kind of threat that would instill fear in a victim is considered use of force.
- Federal kidnapping — This entails kidnappings that cross state borders, which allows federal prosecutors to file kidnapping charges that can include both federal and state crimes.
- Kidnapping degrees — Many states like Tennessee separate kidnapping into different degrees of severity, and in Tennessee along with first degree kidnapping crimes there are Aggravated kidnapping and Especially aggravated kidnapping
Aggravated kidnapping as defined in the Tennessee Code 39-13-302 is also false imprisonment along with any of the following:
- The commitment to facilitate the commission of a felony or flight thereafter;
- The commitment to interfere with a political function or the performance of the government;
- The intention to inflict bodily injury or terrorize the victim or someone else;
- Any situation in which the victim does in fact suffer from a bodily injury
- The possession of a deadly weapon or the threat of using a deadly weapon by the defendant.
Especially Aggravated Kidnapping
In Tennessee, aggravated kidnapping is false imprisonment with the following stipulations:
- It was accomplished with the use of a deadly weapon or any article that would lead the victim to believe the defendant was carrying a deadly weapon;
- The victim was under 13-years-old at the time of the removal;
- The defendant had the commitment to hold the victim as a means to a reward or ransom, or as a hostage; or
- If the victim suffers from any kind of bodily injury.
Every state categorizes kidnapping as a felony, but the varying degrees of kidnapping constitute stricter penalties through varying degrees of felonies and broader ranges of sentence times as well.
The first degree of kidnapping is considered a Class C felony, and false imprisonment is consistently a Class A misdemeanor. According to the offices of Brent Cooper, the penalty for a first degree kidnapping typically entails a state prison sentence of 3-6 years as well as a fine up to $10,000.
Aggravated kidnapping is a Class B felony, which according to Cooper’s office carries a typical penalty of an 8-12 year state prison sentence and a fine up to $10,000. This penalty can be reduced if the defendant can prove that he or she voluntarily released the victim in a safe place.
Aggravated kidnapping is a Class A felony that according to Cooper’s office typically constitutes a prison sentence beginning from 15-25 years, but can lead up to life in prison.
It’s important to consider that if someone is convicted of aggravated or especially aggravated kidnapping they will get severe parole rulings, which means they’ll have to serve more of their sentence incarcerated and have stricter conditions if they are released on parole.
Statute of Limitations
In Tennessee, there aren’t specific statute of limitations that pertain only to kidnapping and its various degrees, but each felony class and misdemeanors have their own broad statute of limitations that apply.
The main purpose for having statutes of limitations for criminal charges is to make sure the criminal justice system works as efficiently as possible, and to make sure that any evidence presented in a prosecution is reliable when the charges are filed.
For first degree kidnapping, which is a Class C felony, the statute of limitations is 4 years.
For false imprisonment, which is a Class A misdemeanor, the statute of limitations is one year.
For Aggravated kidnapping, a Class B felony, the statute of limitations is 8 years, and for Especially aggravated kidnapping, a Class A felony, it’s 15 years.
Some kidnapping statistics are extremely disturbing, but they shed light on just how bad of a problem these types of crimes are in the United States and how serious they should be taken by all Americans.
According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), which utilized a U.S. Department of Justice Report for these numbers, about 800,000 children are reported missing each year, which is about 2,000 per day.
Not all of these missing children are kidnapped, and the NCMEC has reported that about 203,000 children are illegally asported by family members each year, while about 58,200 children are illegally asported by people who are not members of their family. Also, it’s important to consider that a lot of other missing children in the United States are either absconding from home or have been forced to leave by their parents.
Although these are extremely large numbers and indicate the reality of what kidnapping is today, the number of children who are stereotypically kidnapped is much smaller and is about 115 children per year. These stereotypical kidnappings include the kidnapper being someone the child doesn’t know or vaguely knows and transports the child over 50 miles, keeps them overnight or for multiple days at a time, and either demands ransom or kills the child. Out of these roughly 115 incidents per year about 57% end up with the child being returned to their families, while the other 43% do not have as good of outcomes.
Changes in Kidnapping Laws
The kidnapping laws in Tennessee will be up for revision in January 2018, partly due to the efforts of Brent Cooper and other state legislators who deem changes are necessary.
Cooper has said that an ideal change to the law would be to presume that anyone younger than 18-years-old would not have the right to leave his or her family on their own accord. This change could make kidnapping into a statutory law in which the responsibility to not break the law is on adults.
Some drawbacks to this legislation change is that some lawmakers think it could lead to some tricky situations in which a 17-year-old dating an 18-year-old without the permission of the 17-year-old’s parents could lead to some unnecessary legal issues.
An alternative to that situation would be to make the age 16 and above, and for Cooper mending the law is a simple fix that should and could happen next January. In Tennessee, you must be at least 18 years old to consent to sex, enter into legal contracts and rent cars, so raising the age of legally being able to leave one’s family only seems like the most appropriate option to amend one of the shadier areas of Tennessee’s state code.
Contact an Experienced Memphis Criminal Lawyer
With your life and liberty on the line, don’t try to represent yourself, and don’t entrust either to a public defender or to an attorney whose practice doesn’t include a strong emphasis in criminal defense. You are not a guinea pig for an inexperienced lawyer to learn from by overlooking things or making mistakes. Having the best available criminal defense law firm on your side really can make all the difference in the world for you when the state accuses you of murder. Contact the Hamilton Law Firm today.