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Evolving International Law and Defining Offenses

The Fourth Circuit’s noteworthy decision in U.S. v. Dire is probably the first court of appeals decision in a piracy prosecution in nearly 200 years. The Fourth Circuit decision is important not only for some novel pending piracy cases, but for the Alien Tort Statute and broader questions about the interplay of U.S. and international law.

Two groups of defendants were tried by different federal district judges for attempted piracy – they had been caught before boarding the targeted vessel (which was unfortunately for the defendants, a U.S. warship). They were charged under 18 U.S.C § 1651 with “piracy as defined by the law of nations.” Both cases turned on whether that “definition” extends to attempts. One district court said yes, in the Dire case. Another district judge, in Said, said no. He looked the important 1820 piracy case of U.S. v. Smith, where the Supreme Court discussed the definition of piracy, and said everyone agreed it was “robbery on the high seas.” Since there was no robbery here – no piracy.

The Fourth Circuit yesterday reversed the dismissal. It held that the statute refers to “the law of nations” and that is understood to change over time, and the definition of piracy with it. We are not stuck with the 1820 definition of Smith; we look to the definition today. I don’t think the Court had to get into to this evolving-international law inquiry; Said was simply wrong to read Smith’s definition as excluding attempts. Some other noteworthy features:

The Define and Punish Clause. The Fourth Circuit endorsed my position, which had been very generously expounded by the district court, that the Constitution’s Define and Punish Clause only allows for universal jurisdiction over crimes that clearly have that status in international law. Slip Op. at 15-16. The court […]

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