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United States v. Dire, No. 11-4310

Decided:  May 23, 2012

On appeal to the Fourth Circuit, Defendants challenged their convictions of the crime of piracy and their resulting life-plus-eighty-year sentences.  The Fourth Circuit affirmed all of the defendants’ convictions, as well as their sentences.

This case arose out of Defendants’ failed attack on the USS Nicholas when that vessel was conducting a counter-piracy mission in the Indiana Ocean in April 2010.  Defendants, all Somalis, were captured by the USS Nicholas and were quickly apprehended and transported to the Eastern District of Virginia, where they were convicted of the crime of piracy, pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 1651, in addition to other criminal offenses.  Defendants were subsequently indicted by a grand jury on fourteen counts, including piracy.  The Eastern District of Virginia was identified as the proper venue under 18 U.S.C. § 3238, and after an eleven day trial, the jury returned separate verdicts of guilty against all defendants on all counts.  The defendants were then each sentenced to life plus eighty years for their convictions.

In challenging their convictions, Defendants first argued that their failed attack on the USS Nicholas did not constitute “piracy” as it is used in 18 U.S.C. § 1651 because they did not take any property, i.e. they did not commit the requisite “robbery.”  In addressing this issue, the Fourth Circuit assessed whether the district court erred in its interpretation of this statute.  In agreeing with the district court’s assessment of the statute’s definition of piracy, the Court dismissed the defendants’ position that the definition of piracy was fixed when Congress first passed the Act of 1819.  The Court refused to accept this “static” definition of piracy, such that it would be limited to requiring the element of robbery, and instead agreed with the district court that § 1651 “incorporates a definition of piracy that changes with advancements in the law of nations.”  Therefore, the Court concluded that Defendants’ convictions of piracy could stand, despite the fact that they did not commit robbery.

Defendants also challenged the district court’s denial of their individual motions to suppress statements that they made while on board the USS Nicholas three days after being captured.  They argued that their Fifth Amendment rights were violated because the investigators failed to adequately advise them of their right to counsel and did not obtain lawful waivers of this right, nor their right to remain silent.  The Fourth Circuit considered this matter in the context of the requirements underMiranda v. Arizona.  In affirming the district court’s determination that Defendants were adequately informed of their rights on this matter, the Court stated, “[t]he relevant ‘inquiry is simply whether the warnings reasonably convey to a suspect his rights as required by Miranda.’”  The Court conducted a “totality of the circumstances” analysis to determine whether Defendants knowingly and intelligently waived their rights, and it found that the warnings had been translated to the Defendants in their native language, such that any problems arising from a language barrier were alleviated.  Furthermore, the Court determined that while the Defendants “may not have grasped the nature and processes of the United States judicial system,” there was no indication that they did not understand “the concept of an attorney,” and regardless, the Court found that under the Supreme Court’s holding in Colorado v. Spring, 479 U.S. 564 (1987), “it is not necessary that ‘a criminal suspect know and understand every possible consequence of a waiver of the Fifth Amendment privilege.’”  Based on the foregoing, the Court found no error in the district court’s determination that the Defendants “must have understood, from the translated words … that they did not have to speak … and that they could request counsel.”

Finally, the Court considered the Defendants’ argument that the district court erred in refusing to merge their three convictions under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c) for sentencing purposes.  In dismissing this argument and affirming their sentences, the Court relied on its finding in United States v. Lighty, 616 F.3d 321, 371 (4th Cir. 2010), “that multiple consecutive sentences under § 924(c)(1) are appropriate whenever there have been multiple, separate acts of firearm use or carriage,even when all of those acts relate to a single predicate offense.”

Full Opinion

– Allison Hite