Federal Crimes Blog

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

Posted by Ronald D. Hedding | Jun 28, 2023

The crime of piracy is essentially an international crime because it occurs throughout many different nations. The United States government has created specific laws to deal with the severe offense of piracy and privateering.

These federal statutes are defined within 18 U.S.C. Chapter 81. Piracy is uncommon in American jurisdiction waters compared to specific locations worldwide, but the government considers it a severe crime and imposes a life-imprisonment sentence. Let's review some of the laws within this chapter below.

18 U.S.C. Code Chapter 81 - Piracy and Privateering
Piracy is an act of hostility on a vessel, such as a robbery or murder, against a citizen on the high seas.

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

18 U.S. Code 1652 says, “Whoever, being a citizen of the United States, commits any murder or robbery, or any act of hostility against any citizen on the high seas, under color of any commission from any foreign prince, or state, or on the pretense of authority from any person, is a pirate, and shall be imprisoned for life.”

18 U.S. Code 1653 says, “Whoever, being a citizen or subject of any foreign state, is found and taken on the sea making war upon the United States, or cruising against the vessels and property thereof, or of the citizens, contrary to the provisions of any treaty existing between the United States and the state of which the offender is a citizen or subject when by such treaty such acts are declared to be piracy, is a pirate, and shall be imprisoned for life.”

Suppose you are convicted of any piracy or privateering. In that case, you are facing harsh legal consequences. However, these cases are often complex because they deal with the United States and international laws. 

What is Piracy?

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) generally defines piracy as “any illegal acts of violence, detention, or depredation, committed against the crew or passengers of a private ship or aircraft on the high seas.”

In other words, the international crime of piracy typically includes hostage-taking, violence, robbery, and murder on the high seas, defined as international or territorial waters that don't have national boundaries.

Piracy is often associated with violent crimes committed on ships and boats, but it now includes aircraft flying over the high seas.

This international definition is essential because the government has specific language in 18 U.S.C. Chapter 81 about the “law of nations” when defining piracy.

For example, United States laws specifically say the following people can face federal prosecution for piracy:

  • Anyone of any country that committed piracy anywhere in the world;
  • Any United States citizen that commits piracy or privateering against its citizens under a foreign flag;
  • Any person who is not a U.S. citizen that commits piracy against the United States that violates a foreign treaty;
  • Any person that voluntarily assists a pirate serves aboard a pirate vessel, recruits for the purpose of piracy, and accepts pirate loot.

What Are Considered Acts of Piracy?

The United States government has identified several different types of conduct that are considered acts of privacy or privateering, such as the following:

  • 18 U.S.C. 1651  - piracy under the law of nations.
  • 18 U.S.C. 1652  - citizens who become pirates.
  • 18 U.S.C. 1653  - aliens who become pirates.
  • 18 U.S.C. 1654  - arming or serving on privateers, which deals with U.S. citizens who fit out and arm, attempt, or get involved in private vessels.
  • 18 U.S.C. 1655  - the assault on a commander as piracy (mutiny).
  • 18 U.S.C. 1656  - stealing a vessel you serve on or give to pirates, which covers captains or officers who run away with their boats or merchandise.
  • 18 U.S.C. 1657  - corrupting seamen to turn pirates or confederating with pirates.
  • 18 U.S.C. 1658  - plundering a distressed or shipwrecked vessel.
  • 18 U.S.C. 1659  - attacking a vessel with the intent to plunder it.
  • 18 U.S.C. 1660  - someone receiving pirate property.
  • 18 U.S.C. 1661  - coming ashore and committing robbery.

What Is Privateering?

These federal statutes also deal with what is called “privateering,” which is similar to piracy because it is also illegal behavior on the high seas for private gain, but there are a few differences.  

For example, privateers have been authorized by their local government to commit piracy, but most pirates are not sanctioned by their government. Another difference is that the marauders usually attack enemy vessels during wartime to further their war effort. Traditional pirates will attack all ships indiscriminately.

What Are the Penalties and Defenses?

The crime of piracy is punished harshly. Most acts of piracy convictions will carry a mandatory minimum or life imprisonment under the sentencing guidelines.  Still, others have a maximum of 10 years in prison and substantial fines.  

The punishments for participation carry a maximum sentence of 10 years in the Federal Bureau of Prisons.Some examples of “participation in piracy” include the following:

  • Plunder of a vessel in distress;
  • Serving of privateers;
  • Arming privateers;
  • Surrendering a vessel to pirates;
  • Convert a vessel to pirates;
  • Receipt of pirated property;
  • Attacking a vessel for plunder.

The legal penalty for overt acts of piracy is life imprisonment, such as the following:

  • Committing piracy against the United States;
  • Violation of a foreign treaty by committing piracy;
  • A pirate committing robbery on land;
  • Committing other acts of piracy on the high seas;
  • Committing piracy as defined under international law;
  • Mutiny.

A less serious form of piracy, 18 U.S.C. 1657 corrupting seamen and confederating with pirates, carries a maximum sentence of three years.

Defenses for Piracy
Contact our federal defense lawyers for help.

Suppose you or a family member is under criminal investigation or indicted for piracy as defined under United States Code, Title 18, Chapter 81. In that case, you should consult our federal criminal defense attorneys to review the legal options.

Negotiating with the federal prosecutor for reduced charges, case dismissal, or a favorable plea bargain may be possible. We are prepared to take the case to a federal trial if necessary.

You can contact our law firm for a confidential free case evaluation by phone or using the contact form. We provide experienced legal representation throughout the United States on federal criminal issues. The Hedding Law Firm is located in Los Angeles, CA.

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Ronald D. Hedding

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