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Piracy is a State of Mind, Not a State of Success

By Robyn Hagan Cain on May 25, 2012 4:05 PM

In the wee hours of an early April morning, Abdi Dire and his Somali scurvy crew launched an attack on the USS Nicholas, a mighty Navy vessel they mistook for a vulnerable merchant ship. Shiver me timbers, that was a bad idea.

The not-so-merry band was captured, and forced to walk the plank all the way to the Eastern District of Virginia, where they were convicted of piracy and sentenced to life plus 80 years. They appealed, arrr-guing that they weren't guilty of piracy because they hadn't actually captured the ship.

The Fourth Circuit affirmed their convictions, reports Reuters.

The piracy statute is almost as dramatic as the crime of piracy: Whoever, on the high seas, commits the crime of piracy as defined by the law of nations, and is afterwards brought into or found in the United States, shall be imprisoned for life.

On April 1, 2010, the USS Nicholas was on a counter-piracy mission in the Indian Ocean when, lit to disguise itself as a merchant vessel, it encountered the defendants shortly after midnight. (Best April Fool's prank ever.)

The defendants approached the ship on an attack skiff. From their posts on the Nicholas, crew members could see by way of night-vision devices that one of the defendants was armed with a loaded rocket-propelled grenade launcher, while two others carried AK-47 assault rifles. Fire was briefly exchanged before the defendants retreated.

The Navy boys thwarted the skiff's attempted reunion with its mothership, and captured the five defendants. All of the defendants separately confessed to participating willingly in a scheme to hijack a merchant vessel. After a jury trial, the defendants were convicted on all counts.

A district court threw out the charges based on the defendants' argument that the crime of piracy has been narrowly defined as robbery at sea, (i.e. seizing or otherwise robbing a vessel). Because they boarded the Nicholas only as captives, and indisputably took no property, the defendants claimed that they weren't actually pirates.

(Sidebar: Come on, guys! You're supposed to be swashbuckling pirates. "I'm not guilty because I'm bad at my chosen occupation" is not a proper defense.)

After conducting an extensive survey of piracy jurisprudence, (we're talking about Wheat references here) the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the dismissal.

According to the Fourth Circuit, international treaties, the U.S. courts, and international courts interpret piracy statutes to include attempts.

Would-be pirates, (and pirates' attorneys, of course), consider this a warning shot across your legal bow: Now that the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that a person who attempts an armed hijacking of another vessel on the high seas is a pirate under U.S. law, any U.S. ship that captures you will simply set course to deliver you to a Fourth Circuit feeder court.

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