D.C. skyline

Narrowing the definition of kidnapping in Cardozo v U.S.

Jamison KoehlerOpinions/Cases, Other Criminal Offenses

The D.C. Court of Appeals has narrowed the definition of kidnapping in Washington, D.C.

Previously, the prosecution was not required to prove that the complainant had been moved any particular distance or held for any particular time.  It was only that the complainant had been “held or detained” for some benefit to the defendant. 

This led to what the Court described as an “absurd” conviction for kidnapping in Sergio Velasquez Cardozo v. United States, __ A.3d. __ (D.C. 2024).   The defendant was accused of approaching the complainant from behind and groping her breasts and buttocks, interrupting her walk for “a split second,” before she shrugged him off and nearby police officers stepped in to arrest him.ove 

There was no doubt, the Court held, that this was a sexual assault.  The question was whether it should also have been kidnapping with its far more serious penalty.

The Court held no.  Specifically, in an en banc decision, it overruled the precedents that held that any momentary seizure against another’s will was a kidnapping. 

It held instead that to “hold or detain somebody in the context of the District’s kidnapping statute . . . means to detain them for a substantial period of time, so that the perpetrator could fairly be described as holding another captive like a hostage or a prisoner.”

In other words, the statute would apply to “lengthy detentions, not momentary grasps.” 

The Court’s reasoning:  “If every momentary seizure were a kidnapping, that would transform virtually every battery, robbery, and groping into a thirty-year offense, despite legislative determination that those offenses do not merit that degree of punishment.” 

The system should not have to rely on the prosecution’s discretion to exercise restraint in the use of the statute. 

The Court refused to draw a bright-line rule with respect to what would constitute a “substantial period of time.”  At the same time, for frame of reference, it did state that it doubted detentions of less than thirty minutes would qualify unless there was some evidence that a lengthier detention was intended.


The opinion references a number of canons of statutory construction.  Because those are always helpful, I cite them here for future reference.

“If the plain meaning of statutory language is clear and unambiguous and will not produce an absurd result, we will look no further.”  Eaglin v. District of Columbia, 123 A.3d 953, 956 (D.C. 2015). 

A “narrow interpretation . . . would be consistent with our usual approach to the construction of criminal statutes.”  Williams v. United States, 458 U.S. 279, 290 (1982). 

“We are bound to avoid absurd statutory interpretations.  When one possible interpretation would lead to absurd consequences which the legislature could not have intended, we reject it.”  Velasquez Cardozo, __ A.3d __ (D.C. 2024)(citing James Parreco & Son v. D.C. Rental Hous. Comm’n, 567 A.2d 43, 46 (D.C. 1989)(internal quotations omitted). 


Sean Hanover represented Velasquez at trial; Matthew Kaplan on appeal.  Judge Lynn Leibovitz presided at trial.