May 16, 2014 By Paul Wallin

Piracy on the High Seas: True Crimes Depicted in “Captain Phillips”

Imagine yourself as the captain of a commercial cargo ship, transporting emergency food aid to starving Africans across international waters. Suddenly, on the horizon, you spot two skiffs rapidly approaching your ship. Foreign gunmen fire automatic weapons at you as they commandeer the vessel, taking you and your crew members hostage. They demand millions in ransom and threaten to kill everyone on board.

crimes depicted in Captain Phillips
The crimes depicted in Captain Phillips were based on real-life events.

Sounds like a sensational movie plot, doesn’t it? It is…especially since it really happened. In 2009, the MV Maersk Alabama, a United States vessel, was hijacked in international waters by four Somali pirates hundreds of miles off the coast of Africa.

It was the first successful pirate seizure of a ship registered under the American flag since the early 19th century. The Maersk Alabama hijacking and the U.S. Navy’s successful rescue effort that followed were the true life inspiration for the Academy Award-nominated feature film “Captain Phillips,” starring Tom Hanks.

The Navy killed all but one of the four pirates involved. The sole survivor, their 18-year-old leader named Abduwali Muse, had been persuaded onto a Navy warship to negotiate for Phillips’ release and was eventually arrested.

The FBI brought the Somali pirate leader back to New York to face trial in U.S. District Court on charges including piracy under the law of nations, conspiracy to seize a ship by force, conspiracy to commit hostage-taking and related firearms charges. On Feb. 16, 2011, Abduwali Muse was sentenced to 33 years in federal prison.

Let’s take a brief look at his charges, and the consequences you would face if you were convicted of committing the same crimes…

Piracy under the Law of Nations (18 U.S.C. § 1651)

Federal piracy law is governed under Chapter 81 of United States Code. Pursuant to Section 1651, “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.”

According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, “an act of piracy against one nation is a crime against all nations. Pirates target ships and cargo, but threaten international commerce and human life.”

Piracy under the law of nations has rarely ever been charged in the history of the United States. However, the law is still enforceable and carries a mandatory life sentence without parole.

The Somali pirate depicted in “Captain Phillips” was lucky to escape this drastic consequence by pleading guilty to kidnapping in exchange for having the piracy charge dropped.

Conspiracy to Commit an Offense (18 U.S.C. § 371)

Muse was charged with conspiracy in relation to many of the crimes to which he eventually pled guilty as a result of his role in the true life drama “Captain Phillips.”

Conspiracy requires two or more persons acting together to plan to commit a crime. Under federal law, when one or more of such persons does any act to effect the object of the conspiracy against the United States, each person is subject to a $250,000 fine (or $500,000 if an organization is involved) and may be imprisoned up to five years.

Kidnapping (18 U.S.C § 1201)

Kidnapping is both a California state and federal crime. If you abduct or carry away any other person and hold him or her for ransom, you commit a federal crime of kidnapping whenever you intentionally take that person out of the state or country. Using the mail or any means of interstate or foreign commerce to complete an act of kidnapping is also unlawful.

federal kidnapping charges
You could go to jail for life if you are convicted of federal kidnapping charges.

Additionally, federal law prohibits kidnapping if committed within “the special maritime and territorial jurisdiction” and aircraft jurisdiction of the United States, which means you can be charged with federal kidnapping if you abduct a person from a ship or airplane registered or licensed under the laws of the United States, even if that vessel was traveling in international waters.

As depicted in the movie, pirates kidnapped Captain Phillips from a cargo ship flying the U.S. flag while sailing in international waters.

If you are convicted of kidnapping under 18 U.S.C. § 1201, you face a sentence of up to life in federal prison. Attempted kidnapping carries up to 20 years in prison.

If anyone dies as a result of the kidnapping, federal law authorizes a death sentence or life imprisonment without parole.

Hostage Taking (18 U.S.C. § 1203)

After he was kidnapped, pirates held Captain Phillips hostage aboard a stolen lifeboat as they attempted to ransom him for millions of dollars while making their escape back to Somalia. Fortunately, the U.S. Navy rescued him and were able to capture one of his abductors.

Under federal law, if you take another person hostage under threat of injury or death, or whether inside or outside of the United States, or continue to detain another person in order to force a third party or government agency to do or not do something as a condition for releasing your hostage, or attempt or conspire to do so, you can be punished by up to life in prison.

Hostage taking outside the U.S. is only charged under 18 U.S.C. § 1203 whenever:

  • The offender or the person taken hostage is a U.S. citizen;
  • The offender is apprehended in the United States; or
  • A U.S. government agency is being compelled to act.

If taking a hostage results in death to any person, you can be executed or sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Violence against Maritime Navigation (18 U.S.C. § 2280)

18 U.S.C. § 2280 prohibits a person from unlawfully and intentionally doing any of the following when doing so endangers or is likely to endanger the safe navigation of a ship:

  • Seizing control over a ship by force, threat or intimidation;
  • Performing a violent act against someone on board;
  • Destruction of the ship or its cargo;
  • Destroying or damaging the navigational facilities, or seriously interfering with their operation;
  • Knowingly communicating false information under circumstances when the information is likely to be believed;
  • Injuring or killing any person in connection with the commission or attempted commission of any of the above; or
  • Attempting or conspiring to do any of these prohibits acts.

A U.S. ship, citizen or government agency must be involved for federal jurisdiction to apply.

A conviction of violence against maritime navigation under federal law is punishable by a sentence of up to 20 years in prison and a maximum $250,000 fine for an individual and $500,000 for an organization. If death results to anyone from conduct prohibited under 18 U.S.C. § 2280, the death sentence or life imprisonment without parole is authorized.

The pirate leader involved in the true life hijacking of the Maersk Alabama featured in “Captain Phillips” eventually pled guilty to a charge of conspiracy to seize a ship by force under this law (18 U.S.C. § 2280 (a)(1)(A)).

Brandishing/Discharging a Firearm (18 U.S.C § 924)

Federal law strictly regulates firearms and their use. Among many provisions of the United States Code, involvement of a firearm during and in furtherance of any federal crime of violence or drug trafficking may subject you to the following sentencing enhancements:

  • If the firearm is carried, you face at least 5 years imprisonment;
  • If the firearm is brandished, you may be sentenced to prison for not less than 7 years; and
  • If the firearm is discharged, you can be sentenced to a minimum of 10 years in prison.

These sentences apply in addition to the punishment you would receive for the underlying violent or drug trafficking crime.

The pirate leader in “Captain Phillips” was charged with discharging and brandishing a firearm in relation to his role in the hijacking of the Maersk Alabama. However, these charges were dismissed after he agreed to plead guilty to kidnapping and hostage-taking charges.

His defense attorney successfully negotiated a plea bargain that not only spared Muse an additional 17 years in prison on firearms enhancements, but also a mandatory term of life without parole had he been convicted of piracy.

Contact the Federal Criminal Defense Attorneys at Wallin & Klarich

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Call our federal defense attorneys today so we can get started on your case.

If you or a loved one is facing prosecution by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for committing serious federal crimes, you should speak with one of our experienced federal criminal defense attorneys at Wallin & Klarich immediately.

Our attorneys at Wallin & Klarich have over 40 years of experience successfully defending our clients charged with federal crimes. Our team is dedicated to helping you receive the best result possible in your case.

With offices in Los Angeles, Sherman Oaks, Torrance, Tustin, San Diego, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura, West Covina and Victorville, our attorneys are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to make certain you receive the very best legal representation available. You don’t have to go through this alone.

Call us today at (877) 4-NO-JAIL or (877) 466-5245 for a free telephone consultation. We will get through this together.


1. [Federal Bureau of Investigations: “Somalian Pirate Brought to U.S. to Face Charges for Hijacking the Maersk Alabama and Holding the Ship’s Captain Hostage”; http://www.fbi.gov/newyork/press-releases/2009/nyfo042109.htm]

AUTHOR: Paul Wallin

Paul Wallin is one of the most highly respected attorneys in Southern California. His vast experience, zealous advocacy for his clients and extensive knowledge of many areas of the law make Mr. Wallin a premiere Southern California attorney. Mr. Wallin founded Wallin & Klarich in 1981. As the senior partner of Wallin & Klarich, Mr. Wallin has been successfully representing clients for more than 30 years. Clients come to him for help in matters involving assault and battery, drug crimes, juvenile crimes, theft, manslaughter, sex offenses, murder, violent crimes, misdemeanors and felonies. Mr. Wallin also helps clients with family law matters such as divorce and child custody.

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