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United States v. Klintock

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United States Supreme Court

18 U.S. 144

United States  v.  Klintock

THIS was an indictment in the Circuit Court of Virginia, against Ralph Klintock, a citizen of the United States, charging him with a piracy committed on the high seas, in April, 1818, on a vessel called the Norberg, belonging to persons to the jurors unknown. He was found guilty generally.

The facts stated were, that the prisoner is a citizen of the United States; that the vessel in which he sailed as first lieutenant was called the Young Spartan; was owned without the United States, and cruized under a commission from Aury, styling himself Brigadier of the Mexican Republic and Generalissimo of the Floridas, granted at Fernandina, after the United States' government took possession of it. That he was convicted of a piracy, committed on the Norberg, a Danish vessel, in consequence of practising the following fraud upon her. The second officer of the privateer brought on board some Spanish papers, which he concealed in a locker, and then affected to have found them on board. The vessel was then taken possession of, the whole original ship's company left on an island on the coast of Cuba, and the second officer being put in command, took the name of the original captain, sailed for Savannah, and entered her there, personating the Danish captain and crew. The Young Spartan followed, and put into a port in the vicinity.

The counsel for the prisoner moved, that the judgment be arrested on the following grounds:

First, That Aury's commission exempts the prisoner from the charge of piracy.

Second, That the fraud practised on the Dane does not support the charge of piracy, as an act piratically done, and not in the exercise of belligerent rights.

Third, That the prisoner is not punishable under the provisions of the 8th section of the act of 1790.a

Which provides, 'That if any person or persons shall commit, upon the high seas, or in any river, haven, basin, or bay, out of the jurisdiction of any particular State, murder or robbery, or any other offence, which, if committed within the body of a county, would by the laws of the United States, be punishable with death; or if any captain or mariner of any ship or other vessel, shall piratically and feloniously run away with such ship or vessel, or any goods or merchandize to the value of fifty dollars, or yield up such ship or vessel voluntarily to any pirate; or if any seaman shall lay violent hands upon his commander, thereby to hinder and prevent his fighting in defence of his ship, or goods committed to his trust, or shall make a revolt in the ship; every such offender shall be deemed, taken, and adjudged to be a pirate and felon, and being thereof convicted, shall suffer death: and the trial of crimes committed on the high seas, or in any place out of the jurisdiction of any particular State, shall be in the district where the offender is apprehended, or into which he may be first brought.'Fourth, That the act of the 30th of April, 1790, 8th section, 'entitled an act for the punishment of certain crimes against the United States,' does not extend to an American citizen entering on board of a foreign vessel, committing piracy upon a vessel exclusively owned by foreigners.

The Divina Pastora, 4 Wheat. 52. 65. note a, and the cases there collected. The Estrella, Ib. 298. The Neustra Senora de la Caridad, Id. 497

3 Wheat. 610. 630. any individual nation, is an offence against all. It is punishable in the Courts of all. So, in the present case, the offence committed on board a piratical vessel, by a pirate, against a subject of Denmark, is an offence against the United States, which the Courts of this country are authorized and bound to punish.

Upon these errors in arrest of judgment, the judges of the Circuit Court were divided in opinion, and directed the points, with their division thereon, to be certified to this Court.

     Feb. 14th.

The Attorney General, for the United States, argued, 1. That although the government and Courts of the United States had acknowledged the fact of the existence of the new States in Spanish America, so as to legitimate the war between them and the parent country,b yet Mexico was not among the provinces in actual revolt, nor was any such State de facto, known to exist as the Mexican republic, under the authority of which the commission in question was issued. And even if there were such a power in existence exercising all the rights of war, Denmark is not at war with it, or with any other of the Spanish American provinces. 2. Although the fraud practised on the Dane, may not be in itself an act of piracy, yet the seizure was a piratical act, and the ingredient of fraud cannot change its character for the better. 3. Neither is the prisoner protected by the decision of this Court in the case of the United States v. Palmer.c That case merely decides, that the crime of robbery committed on board a ship belonging to subjects of a foreign power, by a foreigner, is not piracy, within the act of the 30th of April, 1790, c. 36. s. 8. But it does not decide, that the same offence, committed by a citizen, on board of a vessel not belonging to the subjects of any foreign power, is not piracy. The vessel on board of which the crime was committed, does not belong to any particular nation. A pirate, being hostis humani generis, is of no nation or State. He and his confederates, and the vessel on board of which they sail, are outcasts from the society of nations. All the States of the world are engaged in a tacit alliance against them. An offence committed by them against

Mr. Winder, contra, contended, that this case was decided by that of the United States v. Palmer. The only argument which can be urged for extracting this case out of that decision is, that the prisoner, in the present case, is a citizen of the United States, although the offence itself was committed on board of a foreign vessel. But the whole reasoning of the Court in Palmer's case, as well as the certificate of the judgment, shows, that in order to constitute the offences enumerated in the statute, it is indispensably necessary, not that the party should be a citizen, but that the vessel against which, and the vessel on board of which the offence is committed, should belong to citizens. It is insisted on the other side, that although the vessel now in question, does not belong to citizens of the United States, yet she does not belong to any particular foreign nation; and, therefore, does not fall within the letter of the authority referred to. But if by her not belonging to any particular foreign State, it be meant that she is a piratical vessel, then the case falls within the late act of 1819, providing for the punishment of piracy as defined by the law of nations, and not within the act of 1790. If it falls within the act of 1790, then the act of 1819 is entirely superfluous. But that act was made to provide for the very defect in the former law which was for the first time discovered in the case of Palmer; and it is impossible, consistently with the authority of that case, to bring the present case within the statute, which was the only law in force, on the subject, at the time when this offence was committed.

     Feb. 25th.

Mr. Chief Justice MARSHALL delivered the opinion of the Court.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).