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Yarrr! 3 Piracy Cases From Supreme Court History

By Mark Wilson, Esq. | Last updated on

Today be Talk Like a Pirate Day, and rather than keel-haul the lot of ye, ye may be well served reading these piracy-related cases from the U.S. Supreme Court. That's right: Actual cases of real pirates on the High Seas, doubloons, eye patches, yard-arms. (OK, maybe not really any of those.)

Actually, the Supreme Court has had little occasion to deal with cases involving piracy; and when it has, the cases have involved terribly unsexy topics like statutory construction and vagueness.

Here are three of the Court's earliest piracy cases to satiate your desire for swashbuckling -- which these cases won't, it turns out:

1. United States v. Palmer (1818).

Three men broke onto a ship, the Industria Raffaelli, assaulted the Spanish crew, and stole expensive cargo, including sugar, rum, honey, and cash. At issue was whether robbery committed at sea could be punishable by death, even if robbery on land could not be. A 1790 statute prescribed death for murder or robbery committed at sea, or any other offense for which death was a punishment if it were committed on land.

Chief Justice John Marshall held that even though robbery wasn't among the laws that were punishable by death on land, Congress intended specifically to add it to the class of laws punishable by death when committed at sea. The Court also concluded that the United States couldn't punish piracy committed by a foreigner on a foreign ship.

2. United States v. Smith (1820).

In March, 1819, Thomas Smith was part of the crew of the Creollo, a private ship commissioned by Buenos Aires, which was at war with Spain. Smith and others left the Creollo while it was docked in Margarita, seized another ship (the Irresistible) and then used it to rob and plunder Spanish vessels. This issue on appeal was whether these actions constituted piracy as "defined by the law of nations."

Justice Joseph Story concluded that Congress not only has the power to punish piracy, but to "define" piracy as it likes. He then concluded that "piracy" was not too vague a crime, and the facts of the indictment sufficiently indicated what Smith had done. Justice Livingston dissented, saying that there was no accepted definition of "piracy," meaning the law was unconstitutionally vague.

3. United States v. Wiltberger (1820).

Wiltberger was charged with manslaughter on the Benjamin Rush while it was on a river in China. The question for the Supreme Court was whether a river was "the high seas" for purposes of the statute. Chief Justice Marshall was on the case again. Applying the rule that criminal laws should be strictly construed, and in light of other words used in the statute, he concluded that "the seas" don't encompass rivers and streams.

Especially telling was that, in other sections of the statute, Congress prohibited acts in specific places, including rivers and basins -- but manslaughter wasn't one of them. Marshall assumed that this was no accident and found that the United States didn't have jurisdiction over this non-capital offense committed on a river.


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