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Can You Be Arrested on a Cruise Ship at Sea?

By Holly South | Last updated on

Cruises are a fun way to experience new cultures and relaxation without having to fly anywhere. However, as the age-old saying goes: It's all fun and games until someone gets hurt.

A fight broke out recently on a Carnival cruise ship following an alleged threesome that one of the participant's significant others discovered and was — naturally — displeased. The hour-long brawl ultimately involved around 60 people, moving from the fifth floor to the first floor, where a fellow passenger began recording. Security personnel are credited for deescalating the situation. When the ship docked in Manhattan, New York police boarded the ship and took action.

Maritime Law

Depending on where the ship was located at sea when the incident occurred, different law enforcement could've been involved. This is due to complex maritime law, which is a set of laws and policies governing nautical affairs.

The United Nations has several conventions in place to help understand how countries should follow maritime law. Typically, while in international waters, a cruise ship follows the same laws of the country that it is registered to. If the ship is out to sea, under the captain's discretion, you can be detained in a separate room until the ship can dock at the next port and local law enforcement can get involved.

What if the Crime Happened in International Waters?

Legal proceedings following disembarkation depend on the jurisdiction where the crime occurred. If the crime was committed on international waters, typically the jurisdiction is that of the country that the cruise ship is registered to. However, if it occurs in port or within 12 nautical miles of a country's shoreline, that country has jurisdiction to intervene.

So in our example, Carnival cruise ships are typically registered to the Bahamas or Panama, which would mean that if our fleet of fighters had started the fight in international waters, they would be subject to either Bahamian or Panamanian laws. However, the company is owned and operated in the United States, which is where things get murky.

FBI Involvement

The FBI gets involved whenever the victim or criminal is a U.S. citizen, the crime is committed in U.S. waters, the ship is owned by a U.S. company, or if the ship is registered in the U.S. Their investigations will typically occur secondary to or in collaboration with local law enforcement, depending on where they have international collaboration and/or support.

So, if you commit a crime in a port in Miami, Florida, then Miami police would have claim over the investigation. However, if you were within 12 nautical miles of Miami, then the FBI would likely be involved in the investigation when you next dock, whether that be in New York or Panama, and you would be subject to U.S. laws, rather than Panamanian.

In other words: International waters are not a lawless haven. Have fun, but be responsible.

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