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U.S. v. BEYLE, NO. 13-4985

Decided: April 3, 2015

This is an appeal from a jury trial convicting the defendants of murder. Beyle and Abrar were Somali pirates who were part of a group that raided an American ship and took four Americans hostage. During a confrontation with the US Navy out in the middle of the ocean, the pirates killed the four American hostages. Both men were convicted of murder.  Beyle appeals, claiming that the murders did not take place on the high seas. Abrar claims that his Fifth and Sixth Amendment rights were violated because he was not able to call pertinent witnesses to prove that he had been forced into piracy. However, since the Fourth Circuit determined that the pirates were on the high seas when the murders took place, they affirmed Beyle’s conviction. Furthermore, they concluded that Abrar’s Fifth and Sixth Amendment rights were not violated, and confirmed his convictions as well.

After an in-depth discussion of the circumstances surrounding the murder of the hostages, the Court first looked to the Constitution’s provisions on piracy and the high seas, and determined that the statutes used to convict Beyle were constitutional. Next, the Court addressed Beyle’s argument that even if the statutes weren’t facially unconstitutional, he wasn’t actually on the high seas when the murders took place, and so the Court had no jurisdiction. The Court thus addressed the issue of whether or not a person is considered “on the high seas” if they are thirty to forty nautical miles off the coast of Somalia, a question that they reviewed de novo. To determine this question, the Court first looked to various case law to determine the meaning of “high seas,” defining it as “beyond the boundary of the various territorial waters,” and looked to customary international law to see if it supports such a meaning. The Court looked to the Geneva Convention on the High Seas as well as the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). According to the UNCLOS, there is an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) that is within two hundred miles of a nation’s coast. Beyle contended that this meant he was not on the high seas; however, the Court pointed out that although that zone has special protections, it is still considered the “high seas,” and at any rate, special economic protections are quite different from a nation’s exclusive authority to punish criminals. Finally, the Court established, through the weight of the authorities it examined, that the outer territorial limits for a country is twelve nautical miles, and thus, the pirates were on the high seas when they murdered the Americans, and therefore fell within American jurisdiction. The Court noted that although the United States is not a signatory to the treaty, the United States still recognizes the treaty as customary international law, so its provisions should apply, and that furthermore the U.S. had a policy in place that it does not recognize claims that a country’s territory extends beyond the twelve nautical miles. Although Beyle raised the argument that Somalia passed legislation that extended its territory to two hundred nautical miles, the Court rejected this argument by pointing out that since Somalia signed onto UNCLOS, they agreed to be bound by the twelve nautical mile restriction in the treaty, so their territory does not extend beyond that. The Court also considered the policy implications of extending Somalia’s territory to the two-hundred-mile designation, and concluded that policy reasons point in favor of limiting their territory to twelve nautical miles.

As to Abrar’s claims, the Court looked to the Constitutional provisions, noting that the Sixth Amendment right is not unlimited, and that the Sixth Amendment does not grant the witness the right to call any and all witnesses. The problem for Abrar was that all of the witnesses he sought were foreign nationals, and thus were outside of the court’s power to subpoena, due to a problem created by Somalia, a problem that the U.S. did not have the authority or power to resolve. The Court also noted that there was little evidence that the testimony of the witnesses would even have been material to Abrar’s duress defense, so their absence did not work a hardship on his defense. Furthermore, Abrar was given multiple opportunities to prepare his defense, and the Court noted that the weight of the evidence against Abrar was so strong that they did not see a reason to disturb the jury’s verdict.

Accordingly, the Court affirmed the District Court’s orders against both defendants.

Full Opinion

Jennie Rischbieter