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Federal Crimes on Cruise Ships Explained by Defense Attorney

The Law Office of Matthew Galluzzo, PLLC Team

Every year the FBI and federal law enforcement investigates a number of serious crimes that were alleged to have occurred onboard cruise ships. State police occasionally investigate these sorts of crimes, but generally speaking, crimes that occur on the high seas fall under federal jurisdiction (if pursued by American law enforcement at all).

The authority of the FBI to investigate criminal offenses and enforce laws of the United States on cruise ships on the high seas or territorial waters of the United States depends on several factors: The location of the vessel, the nationality of the perpetrator or victim, the ownership of the vessel, the points of embarkation and debarkation, and the country in which the vessel is flagged all play a role in determining whether there is federal authority to enforce the laws of the United States.

The principal law under which the U.S. exercises its Special Maritime and Territorial Jurisdiction is set forth in Section 7 of Title 18 of the U.S. Code. This statute provides, in relevant part, that the U.S. has jurisdiction over crimes committed on a ship if:

  • The ship, regardless of flag, is a U.S.-owned vessel, either whole or in part, regardless of the nationality of the victim or the perpetrator, when such vessel is within the admiralty and maritime jurisdiction of the United States and out of the jurisdiction of any particular state;
  • The offense by or against a U.S. national was committed outside the jurisdiction of any nation;
  • The crime occurred in the U.S. territorial sea (within 12 miles of the coast), regardless of the nationality of the vessel, the victim or the perpetrator; or
  • The victim or perpetrator is a U.S. national on any vessel during a voyage that departed from or will arrive in a U.S. port.

However, it is important to note, that when an incident occurs outside the territorial waters of the U.S., there are numerous other factors that come into play in determining the FBI’s role and ability to investigate. In addition to the laws of the U.S., the laws of other sovereign nations, and international law will determine our legal authority to respond to and/or investigate the crime. As these incidents may involve the citizens or interests of other countries, the FBI’s investigative efforts may implicate the sovereignty interests of other involved nations. Resolution of these questions requires consultation and coordination within the U.S. government. Put another way, when more than one nation might have jurisdiction or an interest in investigating a crime upon a cruise ship, those countries have to work together to decide who will be primarily responsible for the investigation and/or prosecution.

The FBI has posted a number of senior-level agents in 60 Legal Attaché—or Legat—offices and 13 sub-offices throughout the world. Through established liaison with principal law enforcement services in designated foreign countries, the FBI’s Legats are able to pursue investigative activities where permissible. The Legats’ authority to conduct investigations overseas or to coordinate FBI extraterritorial teams’ investigations abroad varies greatly and must be determined by each Legat on a country-by-country, case-by-case basis.

The Legats coordinate closely with the Department of Justice’s Office of International Affairs, which provides assistance in international criminal matters to U.S. and foreign investigators, prosecutors, and judicial authorities, primarily in the area of international extradition of fugitives and evidence gathering, and with the Department of State.

Extraterritorial Response

When a Legat has made a determination to respond to a crime on the high seas incident involving U.S. citizens and/or interests occurring outside of the U.S. territorial waters, the Legat’s role in the investigation will vary depending on the host country and the FBI’s resources in the area. The United States cannot board a foreign flag vessel on the high seas to enforce U.S. criminal laws without the consent of the flag state, except for a limited number of recognized universal offenses.

In cases involving suspected criminal activity directed at or aboard a foreign flag vessel on the high seas, international coordination and cooperation is required to board the vessel at sea, investigate the facts, collect evidence, and sort out the jurisdiction of various states with interests in the matter.

Normally, the FBI will attempt to board the vessel before it docks or shortly after, ensuring access to all passengers with an emphasis on protection of life and preservation of evidence, as well as securing the crime scene. In some circumstances, the Legat may request the vessel to dock in the next port of call where relations with a host country or the availability of U.S. resources will better serve the investigation.

FBI personnel or other regional U.S. government entities may conduct the crime-scene investigation or the Legat may coordinate with the host country law enforcement to conduct the crime scene investigation. The Legat will make this decision based on concurrence from the host country, known skill level and resources of local law enforcement, and available U.S. resources. When viable, the FBI will examine, note, and arrange for the proper care of all evidence associated with the incident.

After all crime-scene and witness/victim/suspect interviews have been completed, the FBI will obtain the itinerary of the vessel so, if necessary, the vessel and crew can be located at a later date. Prior to disembarking of passengers/crew notices of contact information for the FBI will be provided should they have any pertinent information regarding the incident after their departure. In some cases, individual letters may be sent to passenger/crew asking for any information concerning the incident. Throughout the investigation, the United States Attorneys Office is kept apprised of the facts of the investigation to obtain a prosecutive opinion.

Extraterritorial Arrest

If a foreign national is indicted for a crime committed on the high seas in violation of U.S. law, but is not located in U.S. territory, the FBI will pursue a logical fugitive investigation to locate and apprehend the subject as the FBI would with any FBI fugitive. Working in coordination through the FBI’s extensive Legat network and liaison with foreign local law enforcement, attempts will be made to locate the fugitive. If the fugitive is located in a foreign country, the FBI and Department of Justice prosecutors, working in coordination with the Office of International Affairs and U.S. State Department, will make every effort to secure the fugitive’s return to face justice in the United States.

Violations Constituting Crimes on the High Seas

The FBI traditionally focuses its investigative efforts on specified serious crimes for which penalties are provided for under Title 18 when the crimes are committed within the special maritime and territorial jurisdiction of the United States. These specified crimes include: assault, murder, attempt to commit murder or manslaughter, kidnapping, sexual abuse, robbery, and theft (as defined in Title 18, Sections 113, 1111, 1112, 1113, 1201, 2111, and 661).

18 U.S.C. 113 applies to assaults on cruise ships.

18 U.S.C. 1111 applies to murder on cruise ships.

18 U.S.C. 1112 applies to manslaughter on cruise ships.

18 U.S.C. 1113 applies to attempts to commit murder or manslaughter on cruise ships.

18 U.S.C. 1201 applies to kidnapping on cruise ships.

18 U.S.C. 2111 applies to robbery on cruise ships.

18 U.S.C. 661 applies to theft on cruise ships.

18 U.S.C. 2241 applies to sexual abuse on cruise ships.

18 U.S.C. 2242 also applies to sexual abuse on cruise ships.

18 U.S.C. 2244 also applies to sexual abuse on cruise ships.

Crime Statistics

Sexual assault and physical assaults on cruise ships were the leading crime reported to and investigated by the FBI on the high seas at 55 percent and 22 percent respectively. (These statistics were collected during the five-year period between 2002 and 2007).

Statistics collected by the FBI indicate that most of the sexual assaults on cruise ships take place in private cabins and over half are alcohol-related incidents. Employees are identified as suspects in about 37 percent of the cases, and 65 percent of those employees are not U.S. citizens. Employee-on-employee assaults make up approximately 2 percent or two of the total cases opened. Fifty-nine percent of the sexual assault cases from fiscal 2002 to February 2007 were not prosecuted, and the typical reasons for prosecutive declinations were lack of evidence, indications that the act was consensual, and/or contradictory victim/witness/subject statements.

Physical assaults are the second most frequent crime upon the high seas. The majority of physical assault cases are on cruise ships, as compared to other commercial vessels. Physical assaults take place in a myriad of locations, including bars and casinos, shared cabins, ship decks, and crew member facilities. These cases are predominantly confrontations between adult males. The majority of the physical assault cases are domestic disputes and a high percentage are alcohol-related incidents.

Missing persons on cruise ships comprised only 12—or 5 percent—of cases opened during this period from 2002 to 2007. Missing person cases were more sporadic in nature and did not appear to have any significant pattern. There were slightly more cases opened on cruise ships and private vessels than fishing vessels and other commercial crafts.

The FBI’s field offices in Miami, Los Angeles, Houston, Tampa, New York, and New Orleans have the largest volume of crimes on the high seas cases, due to their large and active ports and the number of ships that arrive in and depart from these ports.

Crime Victims’ Rights

In 2010, Congress passed legislation mandating important procedures to ensure the integrity and proper handling of investigations of alleged sexual assaults on cruise ships falling under U.S. jurisdiction. The Cruise Vessel Safety and Security Act of 2010 requires cruise ships to provide medical attention and rape forensic exams to victims of these crimes, and provide them with a means to make a confidential report of the alleged rape or sexual assault. To learn more about these rights provided for by this legislation, click here.


If you or a loved one have been arrested or are being investigated for a crime on a cruise ship, or were a victim of a crime on a cruise ship, you should seriously consider contacting the experienced criminal defense attorneys at the Law Office of Matthew Galluzzo. Their team of former prosecutors has tremendous experience investigating sexual and physical assault cases. In fact, Matthew Galluzzo is a former sex crimes prosecutor in Manhattan whose opinion on rape investigations has been sought countless times by newspaper and television journalists. Moreover, their team has gotten tremendous results in defending against federal sexual crimes alleged to have occurred on international vehicles.

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