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Piracy Laws

Piracy seems like a crime from a different time or place. We'd expect pirates 200 years ago, or thousands of miles away in Yemen or the South China Sea. However, the terms refer to a number of serious crimes taking place on the high seas, such as murder or robbery, and such things continue to occur, albeit with fewer eye patches and cannon balls. The following article reviews piracy laws in the U.S. and how they apply in modern times.

What Is Piracy?

A number of criminal acts taking place on the high seas are considered to be piracy, according to U.S. Code. They include:

  • Outfitting a private ship to commit hostilities against U.S. citizens or their property
  • Attacking (as a crewman) a ship's commander to prevent them from fighting in defense of their ship or cargo
  • Attempting to corrupt a ship captain or mariner to run off with their vessel and goods, turn pirate, or trade with pirates
  • Plundering, stealing, or destroying the property of a vessel in distress
  • Using a false light or extinguishing a true light with the intent of causing a shipwreck
  • Obstructing the escape of a person from a vessel in danger or wreck
  • Attacking vessels with the intent to plunder or despoil their property
  • Committing robbery on shore while engaged in a piratical enterprise

In addition to these specifically enumerated acts, the law also includes a catchall clause. It states that whomever commits the crime of piracy as defined by "the law of nations" and later found or brought to the United States will be imprisoned for life.

Citizen and Noncitizen Pirates

The United States will prosecute a U.S. citizen who commits murder, robbery, or any act of hostility against the United States or its citizens while under color of any commission of a foreign prince, state, or under the pretense of authority from any person.

The government may also prosecute any citizen of a foreign state found and taken on the sea making war on citizens of the United States, the U.S. government, or cruising against its vessels and property in violation of any treaty existing between the United States and the person's home country.

Piracy Laws in Modern Times

Five Somali nationals accused of hijacking a yacht and killing four American citizens were tried in federal court in Norfolk, Virginia in 2013. This was the first prosecution for piracy in nearly 200 years, the last case having taken place in 1819 when Thomas Smith, an American, was convicted in a Virginia court of piracy for his attack on a Spanish vessel. Two of the pirates pled guilty. The remaining three were convicted on multiple counts. Piracy carries a mandatory life sentence.

Learn More About Piracy Laws From an Attorney

Although piracy cases remain rare, both the crime and charges relating to it are increasingly common. Given the mandatory life sentence involved, and the very real possibility of the death penalty, piracy charges should be taken very seriously. Contact a local criminal defense attorney to learn more about piracy laws and how they might apply to you.

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