If I'm on a cruise ship, what laws do I have to adhere to?

By: Julia Layton

Is it easier to get away with a crime on a cruise ship? Actually, it might be. Maritime laws are murky and jurisdictions overlap. These ships are in harbor at the U.S. Virgin Islands. See more pictures of paradise.
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Millions of people step onto a cruise ship each year and leave the real world behind. The law seems not to apply in this floating city of swim-up bars, slot machines and exotic ports of call. And in a way, it's true: The law of the land doesn't quite make it to the high seas. This is great news for a resident of Maryland looking to get in some poker on vacation. It's not such great news for the victim of a crime onboard a cruise ship.

Aside from the distant possibility of an onboard fire, hitting an iceberg or getting raided by pirates, cruise ships seem entirely safe. Piracy does still happen -- in 2005, a cruise ship off the coast of Somalia was hit with grenades in a failed hijacking attempt (or, as the FBI calls it, an attempted "vessel conversion").


But onboard crime? Where would someone run to after they've stolen your wallet, or worse, committed rape or murder? It's a logical line of thinking, but it doesn't always apply. A 2007 congressional hearing on cruise ship safety revealed some surprising statistics. According to data provided by the world's biggest cruise lines, in the past three years, 28 people have disappeared on the open seas, and three have been found. Almost 200 people have reported cases of sexual misconduct or assault; and four people have been victims of grand theft [source: Tampa Bays 10].

That might not seem like much when you consider the tens of millions of people who take cruises each year. But it seems like a huge number when you consider the difficulty of enforcing the law on the open seas. Very few of those cases have been thoroughly investigated, let alone solved.

The problem is that maritime law -- the law that applies on the water -- is famously convoluted. Cruise ships aren't even required to report crime statistics to any governing body, and the question of who's supposed to investigate when a crime does occur is a sticky one.

So what happens when a cruise ship passenger or crew member commits a crime? Do they just get away with it? Let's find out what laws apply when you're on a cruise.