piracy (maritime)

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Piracy (within the context of maritime law) is when non-state actors commit war-like acts against ships, such as hijacking a ship, taking hostages, etc. In the United States, piracy is governed by admiralty law. Piracy is prohibited by both United States and international law.

The U.S. Constitution grants Congress the power “[t]o define and punish piracies and felonies committed on the high seas” (Article 1 Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution). Article III, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution grants the federal judiciary original jurisdiction over maritime law. 

At present, prosecuting pirates involves several international law problems. For example, it is unclear whether and to what extent pirates should be treated differently from other criminals.

In U.S. v. Beyle, the United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit, notes that piracy is a threat to the free flow of global commerce and to the individuals who navigate the seas. The Court also discusses the development of piracy law in the U.S. in United States v. Dire.

[Last updated in December of 2023 by the Wex Definitions Team]