Maritime offenses arise anywhere where there is water.  The question of what government has jurisdiction over these offenses often arises.  States have the power to enforce their laws on lakes, rivers and parts of oceans within their territorial limits.  A state may exercise jurisdiction over the marginal portion of the ocean, provided there is no conflict with Federal law or the rights of foreign nations. See Skiriotes v. Florida, 313 U.S. 69 (1941). Indeed, a state may, subject to the same limitations, enforce its laws upon its citizens and registered vessels on the high seas beyond its territorial waters. Id. at 77.  The fact that a state fixes its boundary beyond the low-water mark and claims jurisdiction over the marginal sea, while relevant to venue, is immaterial to Federal jurisdiction.

The Federal government also exercises jurisdiction over certain maritime offenses.  There is Federal jurisdiction for offenses committed on American vessels in the territorial waters, harbors and inland waterways of foreign nations. See United States v. Flores, 289 U.S. 137 (1933). The port nation may also have jurisdiction if the offense disturbs its peace. Id. at 157-59.  The United States typically does not prosecute an offense following a foreign prosecution unless substantial Federal interests were left unvindicated.

The United States Attorney usually takes jurisdiction over offenses committed on land or in buildings occupied by agencies of the Federal government, unless the crime reported is a Federal offense regardless of where committed, such as assault on a Federal officer or possession of narcotics.  The United States has jurisdiction only if the land or building is within the special territorial jurisdiction of the United States.

Section 7 of Title 18 provides that the “special territorial and maritime jurisdiction of the United States” includes:  (1) The high seas, any other waters within the admiralty and maritime jurisdiction of the United States and out of the jurisdiction of any particular State, and any vessel belonging in whole or in part to the United States or any citizen thereof, or to any corporation created by or under the laws of the United States or of any State, Territory, District, or possession thereof, when such vessel is within the admiralty and maritime jurisdiction of the United States and out of the jurisdiction of any particular State.

A number of Title 18 sections specifically declare certain conduct to be a Federal crime if committed “within the special maritime and territorial jurisdiction of the United States.” See, e.g., murder, 18 U.S.C. §  1111. In some instances, the Assimilative Crimes Act, 18 U.S.C. § 13, is also applicable. See also, 15 U.S.C. § 1175; 15 U.S.C. §  1243; 16 U.S.C. § 3372.

The Assimilative Crimes Act, 18 U.S.C. § 13, makes state law applicable to conduct occurring on lands reserved or acquired by the Federal government as provided in 18 U.S.C. § 7(3), when the act or omission is not made punishable by an enactment of Congress.  Prosecutions instituted under this statute are not to enforce the laws of the state, but to enforce Federal law, the details of which, instead of being recited, are adopted by reference. In addition to minor violations, the statute has been invoked to cover a number of serious criminal offenses defined by state law such as burglary and embezzlement. However, the Assimilative Crimes Act cannot be used to override other Federal policies as expressed by acts of Congress or by valid administrative orders.

The term “special maritime and territorial jurisdiction of the United States” is defined in eight subsections of 18 U.S.C. § 7. These subsections relate to maritime jurisdiction, 18 U.S.C. §§ 7(1), 7(2); lands and buildings, 18 U.S.C. § 7(3); Guano Islands, 18 U.S.C. §7(4); aircraft, 18 U.S.C. § 7(5); spacecraft, 18 U.S.C. § 7(6); places outside the jurisdiction of any nation, 18 U.S.C. § 7(7); and foreign vessels en route to and from the United States, 18 U.S.C. § 7(8).

There are a number of statutes defining maritime offenses that are not dependent upon 18 U.S.C. § 7 and are not affected by the fact that the offense occurred within state jurisdiction. For example, death resulting from criminal negligence of a ship’s officer or crew can be prosecuted under 18 U.S.C. § 1115 when a manslaughter prosecution under 18 U.S.C. § 1112 would be barred because the ship was within a harbor.

Vessels have the nationality of the country where they are registered and whose flag they have a right to fly. Under 18 U.S.C. § 7(1), federal jurisdiction attaches if the vessel is partially owned by a citizen of the United States.

Trombley & Hanes has experience representing clients facing a variety of maritime offenses ranging from boating under the influence to environmental offenses to narcotics trafficking.