Maritime crimes include piracy, drug trafficking, terrorism, felonies, and simple assault on the high seas.
Ships traveling on oceans, seas, and water outside national jurisdiction are generally doing so under the laws of their flag state. However, when such ships conduct crimes they can be brought under any nation’s jurisdiction. Within territorial waters of states, both the federal and state governments can exercise concurrent jurisdiction for maritime crimes.
The U.S. admiralty law asserts jurisdiction over any ship belonging to the U.S., or any private citizen of the U.S. The U.S. can assert its jurisdiction over its ships and nationals abroad when ships are situated in foreign territorial waters or inland waters, and when foreign states do not assert their own jurisdiction.[i]
From early times admiralty law has exercised wide criminal jurisdiction. The U.S. constitution allows Congress to authorize admiralty courts to exercise criminal jurisdiction.[ii] An admiralty court’s criminal jurisdiction extends to crimes committed on the U.S. ships in territorial waters of a foreign nation.
When a crime occurs within a state’s territorial waters, the state can assert jurisdiction over that criminal case. Although the U.S. constitution grants power to federal courts to hear all cases of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction, state courts are not precluded from maritime criminal jurisdiction.[iii]
[i] Murray v. Hildreth, 61 F.2d 483 (5th Cir. Fla. 1932)
[ii] United States v. 12536 Gross Tons of Whale Oil, 29 F. Supp. 262 (D. Va. 1939)
[iii] Cloyd v. State, 943 So. 2d 149 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 3d Dist. 2006)