The Supreme Court rejected the appeals of two groups of captured Somalis. Federal prosecutors had argued that the definition of piracy has broadened since the early 1800s.
The US Supreme Court on Tuesday let stand a series of lower-court opinions endorsing a broad view of what constitutes the crime of piracy – a move that will make it significantly easier for the government to prosecute and convict suspected Somali pirates in federal court.
The high court turned aside an appeal by five Somali nationals convicted of firing shots from a small skiff at a US Navy frigate on patrol 600 miles off the coast of Somalia on April 1, 2010.
The warship, the USS Nicholas, returned fire and sank the boat. Three men were taken prisoner. Two others were captured on another small boat nearby.
The action was part of an international response to widespread violence against cargo ships off the coast of Somalia. The alleged pirates would fire upon and board civilian ships and then hold the ship, cargo, and crew hostage until hefty ransoms were paid.
The Somalis are said to have mistaken the warship for a commercial vessel.
All five prisoners were brought to the United States and charged with piracy. They were subsequently convicted and sentenced to mandatory terms of life in prison on the piracy charge, plus 80 years for firearms and other violations.