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Federal Piracy and Privateering Laws - 18 U.S. Code Chapter 81

Posted by Dmitry Gorin | Sep 12, 2022

For all intents and purposes, piracy is an international crime—that is, it's a crime to commit piracy anywhere in the world. That being said, the U.S. government has enacted specific laws about crimes of piracy and how these crimes are punished.

Federal Piracy and Privateering Laws - 18 U.S. Code Chapter 81

These laws are codified in Title 18 U.S. Code Chapter 81. While piracy is rare in American waters nowadays compared to other parts of the world, the federal government still holds it among the most serious of crimes—to the point that many acts of piracy carry an automatic sentence of life imprisonment.

18 U.S. Code § 1651 says, “whoever, on the high seas, commits the crime of piracy defined by the law of nations, and is brought into or found in the United States, shall be imprisoned for life.”

18 U.S. Code § 1658 says, “whoever plunders, steals, or destroys any money, goods, merchandise, or other effects belonging to any vessel in distress, or wrecked, lost, stranded, or cast away, upon the sea, or upon any reef, shoal, bank, or rocks of the sea, in any other place within the jurisdiction of the United States, will be fined and face up to ten years in prison, or both.”

Any piracy and privateering could result in federal criminal charges with severe penalties. These types of federal offenses are often complicated because both United States and international laws could be filed based on the case's specific details. Our federal criminal defense lawyers will examine this topic in more detail below.

Piracy Explained

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) has crafted an international definition of piracy as “any illegal acts of violence or detention, or any act of depredation, committed for private ends by the crew of the passengers of a private ship or a private aircraft...on the high seas against another ship or aircraft...[and] any act of voluntary participation [in a pirate ship].”

Federal Piracy Law

In plain English, the international crime of piracy involves any act of murder, robbery, criminal violence, or hostage-taking on the “high seas”—that is, in (or over) international or territorial waters rather than within specific national boundaries.

The traditional definition of piracy involved violent crimes committed on ships and boats, but the modern definition now includes aircraft flying over the seas.

This international definition is important because the U.S. government refers to it in 18 U.S.C. Chapter 81 as the “law of nations” when defining piracy in general.

Under U.S. law, any of the following persons may be prosecuted for piracy via 18 U.S. Code Chapter 81:

  • Any person of any country who has committed piracy anywhere in the world, according to the “law of nations” definition;
  • Any U.S. citizen who engages in piracy or privateering against the U.S. or its citizens under a private or foreign flag;
  • Any non-U.S. citizen who commits piracy against the U.S. in violation of a foreign treaty;
  • Anyone who voluntarily assists a pirate, serves aboard a pirate or privateer vessel, recruits for pirates, or takes pirate loot.

What Is Privateering?

In addition to the crime of piracy, this federal statute also addresses a related concept known as “privateering.” While privateering is similar to piracy in that it's an illegal act committed at sea for private gain, there are a few key distinctions.

First and foremost, privateers are authorized by their governments to commit such acts, whereas pirates are not. Secondly, marauders typically attack enemy vessels during wartime as part of an official war effort (hence the “private” in privateering), while pirates attack vessels indiscriminately.

What Are Acts of Piracy?

The federal government identifies numerous activities categorized as acts of privacy or privateering. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Serving on a privateer vessel or arming such a vessel (18 U.S.C. § 1654). This statute covers U.S. citizens who fit out, and arm, attempt, or otherwise become involved with fitting out and arming private vessels of privateers or ships of war with the intent that they will be used to commit hostilities;
  • Stealing a vessel you serve on or voluntarily handing it over to pirates (18 U.S.C. § 1656). This statute covers captains or officers who run away with their boats or goods and merchandise or voluntarily give their vessel to pirates;
  • Mutiny (18 U.S.C. § 1655). This statute covers the assault on a commander as piracy. If a seaman lays hands upon his commander to prevent them from defending the vessel or goods, that seaman is considered a pirate;
  • Attacking a vessel with the intent to plunder it (18 U.S.C. § 1659);
  • Plundering a distressed or shipwrecked vessel (18 U.S.C. § 1658);
  • Coming ashore and committing robbery (18 U.S.C. § 1661);
  • Corrupting seamen to “turn pirate” or confederating with pirates (18 U.S.C. § 1657). This statute covers attempting to corrupt officers, mariners, or masters to run away with a vessel or goods or attempting to turn officers or mariners into pirates.

What Are the Penalties for Piracy?

Piracy is punished quite severely under U.S.C. 81. Most overt acts of piracy come with a mandatory minimum of life imprisonment, while most others carry a maximum of 10 years in prison—not to mention hefty fines in many cases.

Penalties for crimes of “participating in piracy” come with a maximum prison sentence of 10 years. Examples include, but are not limited to:

  • Attacking a vessel to plunder it;
  • Plundering a vessel in distress;
  • Arming or serving on privateers;
  • Converting or surrendering a vessel to pirates;
  • Receiving pirated property;

The penalty for overt acts of piracy is life imprisonment. Examples include:

  • Mutiny;
  • Committing piracy against the U.S. or its citizens;
  • Violating a foreign treaty with an act of piracy;
  • Committing robbery on land as a pirate;
  • Committing any other act of piracy on the high seas as defined by international law.

The less “serious” crime of piracy, corrupting seamen, and confederating with pirates (18 U.S.C. § 1657), comes with a maximum prison sentence of 3 years.

Criminal Defense Lawyer for Federal Crimes

Other crimes of piracy could loosely be categorized as “participating in piracy” and “overt piracy.”

If you or a family member is under investigation or already indicted for piracy under United States Code, Title 18, Chapter 81, contact our experienced team of federal criminal defense attorneys to review the case and discuss legal options.

Through negotiations with the federal prosecutor, it might be possible to work out a favorable resolution. If guilt is not in question, then perhaps pursuing a plea agreement is the best strategy, but we are prepared to take the case to trial if necessary.

Eisner Gorin LLP is a top-ranked criminal defense law firm that offers legal representation for federal issues throughout the United States. You can contact our office by phone or fill out the contact form.

About the Author

Dmitry Gorin

Dmitry Gorin is a licensed attorney, who has been involved in criminal trial work and pretrial litigation since 1994. Before becoming partner in Eisner Gorin LLP, Mr. Gorin was a Senior Deputy District Attorney in Los Angeles Courts for more than ten years. As a criminal tri...

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