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United States v. Smith

5 Wheat. 153, 18 U.S. 153, 5 L.Ed. 57 (1820)

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United States v. Smith

United States Supreme Court

5 Wheat. 153, 18 U.S. 153, 5 L.Ed. 57 (1820)

Facts

Thomas Smith (defendant) was a crewmember of a ship commissioned by the Buenos Ayres government. The crewmembers seized a ship and then plundered and robbed a Spanish ship in international waters. United States law stated that if someone committed piracy, as defined by international law, and that person was found in the United States, the person was subject to the death penalty. Smith was brought into the United States and indicted for piracy. A jury of the Circuit Court of Virginia retuned a special verdict finding that if Smith’s actions constituted piracy under United States law, he was guilty, but if the conduct was not piracy under United States law, he was not guilty. The question became, then, whether Smith’s conduct was piracy under international law, and thus punishable under United States law. This question was certified to the United States Supreme Court. Smith argued that Congress was required to specifically define piracy to punish it and could not rely on an international-law definition.

Rule of Law

Issue

Holding and Reasoning (Story, J.)

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