Piracy seems like a crime from a different time and place. But piracy still occurs today. It does, however, take place with fewer eye patches and cannonballs. Piracy is a crime under U.S. laws and international law. It involves many different varieties of offenses.
This article reviews piracy laws in the United States and how they apply in modern times.
What Is Piracy?
Piracy is defined in 18 U.S. Code Chapter 81. A number of criminal acts are covered under the federal definition of piracy. What makes those acts piracy — rather than just, for example, theft or murder — is that these crimes take place on the "high seas." This means that an act of piracy happens outside territorial waters, where no one nation has jurisdiction.
Territorial water is the body of saltwater next to the shores of a country that extends for a specific distance. Crimes occurring within that territory are charged under the laws of the country. Crimes outside that territory — on the high seas — are normally charged based on the laws of the land under whose flag the ship flies.
U.S. law defines acts of piracy that endanger the safe navigation of ships as:
- Seizing or exercising control of a ship by force or threat of force
- Performing an act of violence against a person onboard a ship
- Destroying a ship or its cargo
- Placing or causing to be placed on a ship a device that could destroy or damage the ship and its cargo
- Destroying or damaging maritime navigational facilities or interfering with their operation
- Communicating navigational information that is known to be false but likely to be believed
- Plundering distressed vessels
- Corruption of seamen
- Depredation at sea
- Privateering (see below)
- Injuring or killing a person while committing any of those acts listed above
- Attempting or conspiring to commit those acts listed above
Other Piracy Acts
In a privateering offense, defined in 18 U.S.C. Section 1654, a hostile nation hires a privately owned boat and crew to attack enemy ships. Usually, the targets of these privateers are commercial vessels. They may also seek the surrender of vessels they are attacking.
Privateering laws assign severe penalties to offenders and the owners of privateer vessels. Under relevant parts of the United States Code, these penalties can involve heavy fines or long prison terms. Privateering is one of the many shapes the crime of piracy can take.
In addition to piracy on the high seas, the federal code criminalizes other acts related to piracy. Some of the prohibited acts include:
- Outfitting a ship to commit hostilities that are directed at citizens of the United States or the property of U.S. citizens
- Preventing a commander from fighting in defense of their ship or cargo
- Stealing a vessel or its goods or voluntarily giving up a vessel or its goods
- Corrupting a ship's captain, officers, or mariners in order to run off with their vessel and goods or to trade them with pirates
- Causing a shipwreck
- Plundering, stealing, or destroying a vessel in distress (which includes preventing a person from escaping a vessel in danger)
- Attacking a vessel with the intent to plunder it
- Receiving property stolen through piracy
- Committing robbery on shore, while otherwise engaging in piracy
- Receipt of pirated property
Law of the Sea
By its very nature, piracy is an international crime. International treaties and a host of other multinational agreements related to the high seas aim to govern piracy. These collective agreements are known as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). This international definition of piracy governs legal identifications of the crime when they occur in international contexts.
The U.S. has not ratified the 1994 UNCLOS agreement, unlike 160 other nations. Regardless, federal courts have used the treaty to help define piracy. And for the most part, the U.S. government tends to follow the treaty.
In U.S. law and in international law, piracy almost always involves an illegal act of violence.
Noteworthy Modern Piracy Cases
U.S. v. Ali (2013): This has been called the first modern piracy prosecution in the federal courts because it showed that the U.S. can and will prosecute pirates regardless of their ties to any nation. That means foreign nationals and U.S. citizens alike could face charges.
The principle of universal jurisdiction was illustrated by the international nature of the crime. Ali Mohamed Ali was charged and convicted for aiding a group of Somali pirates who seized a Danish-owned ship, flying a Bahamian flag, crewed by Russians. His part in the crime was the negotiation of a ransom payment.
Adding to the international intrigue, Ali was the education minister for a region of Somalia called Somaliland, and he claimed to have helped the U.S. as an operative. To capture Ali, federal agents lured him to the U.S. with an invitation to speak at a fake conference. They arrested him when he arrived in the country.
Ali appealed his case, arguing that the court's definition of piracy was overly broad and that prosecution for international acts violated his due process rights. Still, an appellate court upheld most of the charges against him.
U.S. v. Said (2015): A small skiff in the Gulf of Aden — between the Yemeni side of the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa — fired on a U.S. Navy ship, having mistaken the U.S.S. Ashland for a merchant vessel. This turned out to be a big mistake. The Navy ship returned fire, killed one of the attackers, and took the remainder of the skiff's crew, all Somali nationals, into custody. They were prosecuted for "piracy as defined by the law of nations" under federal law.
The charge of piracy was originally challenged because the Somalis did not rob the ship or its crew, which was the accepted definition of piracy at the time the statute was written. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected this challenge and upheld the convictions.
Additionally, the defendants in U.S. v. Said challenged the mandatory life sentence provision in the statute, claiming it violated their Eighth Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment. They claimed life imprisonment was excessively harsh. The trial court agreed with them and declined to impose the life sentences required by statute. However, on appeal, the Fourth Circuit reversed that decision and upheld the sentencing provision.
Learn More About Piracy Laws From an Attorney
Although piracy cases remain rare, the crime and charges relating to it are very serious. Contact a criminal defense attorney to learn more about piracy laws. If you're facing a piracy charge, it's important to seek the assistance of criminal defense lawyers experienced with this aspect of criminal law.
Criminal procedure can be hard to navigate when it comes to this offense. And federal criminal charges related to piracy can be very severe. Such criminal charges take the shape of felonies that can tarnish a criminal record in debilitating ways. Piracy charges can also lead to life in prison.
Attorneys can help with your defense strategy. They can help you get the best possible outcome for the charges you may be facing. Their legal representation could prevent the most severe of consequences for piracy.