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Three mast pirate ship on the water.
One of the ships passing by in Charleston at Tall Ships Charleston, an event that included feature the parade of classic sailing ships, a wooden boat display, a "pirate camp," family boat-building, maritime art, and music. Highsmith, Carol M. May 18, 2017. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Modern Piracy and the United States Code

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The following is a guest post by Aaron Lombard, an intern with the Digital Resources Division of the Law Library of Congress.  He is a current M.L.I.S. student at the University of North Carolina Greensboro.

When thinking of “piracy,” what comes to mind? Perhaps sloops, Blackbeard, and swashbuckling tales of adventure? Or perhaps you have looked at the Law Library’s Piracy Trials Collection, browsed our story map, or read previous blog posts about piracy. You might even be familiar with the mention of piracy in Article 1, Section 8 of the United States Constitution which gives Congress the power to “define and punish piracies and felonies committed on the high seas.”

But have you ever wondered if there are current federal laws on piracy? Title 18, Chapter 81 of the United States Code covers all of the actions that would be classified as piracy and are in force today. Besides committing piracy, it also includes knowingly supporting the actions of a known pirate. For example, 18 USC §1657 makes corroboration with pirates illegal and carries a maximum sentence of three years in prison.

Title 18, Sections 1651 to 1657 of the United States Code which outline legal definitions and criminal actions of piracy.
United States Code: Piracy and Privateering, 18 U.S.C. §§ -1661 1982. U.S. Congress. (1982) Retrieved from the Library of Congress.

How does 18 USC §1657 define “corroboration with pirates?”  It states the following:

“Whoever attempts to corrupt any commander, master, officer, or mariner to yield up or to run away with any vessel, or any goods, wares, or merchandise, or to turn pirate or to go over to or confederate with pirates, or in any wise to trade with any pirate, knowing him to be such.”

“Whoever furnishes such pirate with any ammunition, stores, or provisions of any kind.”

“Whoever fits out any vessel knowingly and, with a design to trade with, supply, or correspond with any pirate or robber upon the seas.”

“Whoever consults, combines, confederates, or corresponds with any pirate or robber upon the seas, knowing him to be guilty of any piracy or robbery.”

“Whoever, being a seaman, confines the master of any vessel.”

The punishment for conviction can be fines, prison time of up to three years, or both. Additionally, 18 USC §1652 and 18 USC §1653 provide legal definitions for the term “pirate” according to the federal government.

Pirates have been considered “hostis humani generis” (which translates to “enemies of mankind” in Latin) for centuries, however this section (18 USC §1657) of the U.S. Code was debated in the courts less than 12 years ago in the case of United States v. Ali (2012). 

United States v. Ali

United States v. Ali was a district court case filed against Ali Mohamed Ali, a Somali national, regarding the hijacking of a merchant ship, the CEC Future, in the Gulf of Aden.

According to the district court decision, on November 7, 2008, armed pirates seized the CEC Future and held its crew and cargo hostage in an attempt to compel the company Clipper Group, which owned the vessel, to pay a ransom. Two days later, Ali boarded the vessel and played the role of a translator and negotiator for the pirates. Ali helped strike a deal where the CEC Future and its cargo were to be docked and kept in the Somalian port of Eyl, while the ship’s crew were to be immediately freed safely. After roughly one year of negotiations, the pirates eventually received a 1.7 million dollar settlement in January 2009 to give back the merchant vessel to the Clipper Group.

The government formally indicted Ali in 2011, based on several sections in title 18, chapter 81 of the United States Code, in the first instance of charges in the District of Columbia for negotiating and receiving a ransom in an act of piracy. The charges against Ali included conspiracy to commit piracy as well as hostage-taking charges. The case was argued in the District Court of the District of Columbia and appealed.

The appellate court stated:

“Ali’s alleged involvement was limited to acts he committed on land and in territorial waters—not upon the high seas. Thus, the district court restricted the charge of aiding and abetting piracy to his conduct on the high seas and dismissed the charge of conspiracy to commit piracy. Eventually, the district court also dismissed the hostage-taking charges, concluding that prosecuting him for his acts abroad would violate his right to due process. On appeal, we affirm the dismissal of the charge of conspiracy to commit piracy. We reverse, however, the district court’s dismissal of the hostage-taking charges, as well as its decision to limit the aiding and abetting piracy charge.”

It is amazing to think of the connection between the golden era of piracy in the 17th and 18th centuries to the legal definitions and laws today. It will be interesting to witness the evolution of piracy laws as new forms of transportation and technology emerge. Many questions come to mind when thinking about the future of piracy in the legal system. How will the legal definitions of pirates change or remain the same in the coming years? Are crimes of piracy still going to be defined by actions that were taken upon the ocean? Are international piracy crimes on the rise and could they possibly be a continuing trend in the coming years? Only time will reveal the answers to these questions, but now we know where to look for some of those answers in title 18, chapter 81 of the United States Code of Law.

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  1. Congratulations on your publication Aaron!

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