Piracy Indictment Gets Thrown Overboard by Federal Judge in Virginia
On August 17, 2010, U.S. Federal Judge, Raymond A. Jackson of U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia dismissed the felony criminal charge brought against Defendant Mohamed Ali Said and the other men accused of attacking the USS Ashland in the Gulf of Aden on or about April 10, 2010. The Defendants are alleged to have approached the USS Ashland on a skiff and opened fire on the vessel. The USS Ashland, however, was able to thwart the attack by returning fire and destroying the skiff; following which the Defendants were taken into custody.
Defense counsel sought to have the piracy count dismissed on the basis that "piracy" was not committed since the defendants did not board or take control of the vessel and did not obtain anything of value from it. The prosecutors, on the other hand, argued that the act of piracy does not require the actual taking of property, but that any unauthorized armed assault or directed violent act on the high seas is sufficient to constitute piracy.
Ultimately, the Court found that the government's interpretation of the act of piracy would impermissibly expand the crime beyond what traditional notions of due process allow. The Court stated that it is obliged to interpret the statute in accordance with its ordinary meaning at the time of its original enactment. The statute, which was originally enacted in 1819, states that "whoever, on the high seas, commits the crime of piracy as defined by the law of nations, and is afterwards brought into or found in the United States, shall be imprisoned for life." 18 U.S.C. § 1651. The Court found precedential authority in U.S. v. Smith, 18 U.S. 153 (1820), a case in which Justice Story found that piracy, under the law of nations, was "robbery at sea."
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