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Maritime Quirks

The law is full of quirks. Maritime law has its fair share of quirks, too. For instance, state laws ban gambling. Several years ago, Nevada and New Jersey created zones that allow and encourage gambling. In recent years, other states, like New York and Pennsylvania, created exceptions wherein gambling is allowed. In contrast, federal law does not ban gambling. As such, land designated by the United States government as Indian Reservation land is under the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, which comes under federal law. Because there is no gambling ban in these areas, locals opened casinos. Reservation-based casinos in Connecticut and Florida have been particularly successful.

The same is applicable for riverboat gambling. People can board a boat that is docked on the Mississippi River to gamble once the boat is off into the water. While the boat is docked, gambling stations are closed; gambling stations open when the boat heads into the water. The United States Supreme Court, when explaining the application of the “Commerce Clause,” wherein federal law would trump state law, stated that the definition of the commerce clause is “intercourse between states.” That is to say, interstate commerce is governed by federal, not state, law. As such, the Mississippi River, which is a major interstate waterway, is under federal jurisdiction and therefore not subject to state-proffered gambling bans.


Murder on a reservation and aboard a ship at sea will be under the same jurisdictional regime. If a murder occurs right outside a reservation, the local prosecutor, who is appointed by the state, will conduct an investigation and prosecute the crime. If a murder occurs five feet away inside a reservation, the U.S. Attorney for the state where the reservation is located conducts the investigation and prosecutes the case. As mentioned, this is because the reservation would fall under the US Bureau of Indian Affairs, subject to federal law.

Murder aboard a ship has the same consequences. Murder that occurs while a boat is docked will fall under the jurisdiction of the local prosecutor. Murder that occurs out in the ocean will fall under the jurisdiction of the US Attorney.

This jurisdictional application will determine applicable law. State crimes will apply state law whereas federal crimes will apply federal law.

Sentencing Guidelines

Because murder is a federal crime, the case will go before a federal, not a state, judge. If the defendant is convicted of murder, the federal judge will apply the federal sentencing guidelines. Note that federal sentences tend to be longer than state sentences. Under federal guidelines, crimes are assigned to one of 43 offense levels and one of six criminal history categories. The higher the offense level, the more serious the crime. For instance, pre-meditated murder would fall under the 43rd, which is the highest, category. This is combined with the defendant’s criminal history. Sentencing guidelines provide a formula wherein the two, offense level and history, work together. There are other factors that allow a judge to adjust, either up or down, the offense level.

Accused of a maritime crime? Contact the Kolodny law firm, experienced maritime lawyers.  

(image courtesy of John Schnobrich)

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