What Happens if You Commit a Crime in Space?
While it might seem like something out of science fiction, given that humans are presently in space and soon enough mass space tourism is going to open up the possibility for many, many more, it’s only a matter of time before someone commits a crime in space, with it being alleged the first already occurred in 2019, which we’ll get to shortly. So what exactly happens if someone does break the law in space? Could you, say, commit murder and get away scot-free?
To begin with, while you might think it can’t actually be possible to commit a crime in space because no country seemingly has jurisdiction there, you’d be wrong. Much like the myth that you can do whatever you want in international waters because no country holds sway, it turns out, among other agreements and rules, International laws are a thing.
On that note, while aboard a given vessel, the ship you’re on officially hails and is registered from some nation or group of nations (like the European Union) and the laws from said entities are binding aboard it in most cases while it’s out at sea. This is outlined in the United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea, “every State shall effectively exercise its jurisdiction and control in administrative, technical and social matters over ships flying its flag.”
While obviously there isn’t exactly a court case history to back this up, the general consensus is that the same basic idea will hold true for ships in space, and certain agreements to date concerning space ships do seem to bear that out, as well as help give a partial framework for judges to work with.
For example, in the Outer Space Treaty, beyond more or less attempting to ensure space stays free from any claim of national sovereignty, most pertinent to the topic at hand, it notes,
State Party to the Treaty on whose registry an object launched into outerspace is carried shall retain jurisdiction and control over such object, and over any personnel thereof, while in outer space or on a celestial body.
More or less mirroring this idea, on the International Space Station, the partnered nations came up with the Intergovernmental Agreement on Space Station Cooperation, which states, in part, the nations, “may exercise criminal jurisdiction over personnel in or on any flight element who are their respective nationals.”
As Joanne Gabrynowicz, the editor of Journal of Space Law- which is totally a thing by the way- elaborates, “The law of the nation that contributed and registered the module applies to that module… Further, each astronaut is governed by the law of the nation they represent. Therefore, which nation’s criminal jurisdiction will apply depends on which nation’s module the alleged crime was committed and which nation the alleged perpetrator is from.”
It’s also noteworthy that this Space Station Agreement has already anticipated countless other things that may happen in space and how various nations can work together amicably to resolve them, leading many space lawyers- which are also totally a thing- to speculate that elements of this agreement are likely to get adopted into a more general, universal agreement at some point down the line. And in the meantime, judges may well lean on it, among other existing agreements and analogous cases here on Earth, when attempting to decide legal matters as they begin happening outside of the ISS.
Speaking of these analogous cases, much like when a person travels to another nation and then commits a crime, there are plenty of existing agreements and fodder for authorities to draw from when crimes are committed in space. While there certainly will be the occasional dispute, as even happens between nations on Earth over such matters today, there is a pretty good outline already in place as to how it will probably be sorted out.
On top of this, even should you renounce your citizenship and be aboard your own vessel that likewise has no ties to any nation (perhaps even with you declaring said ship a nation of its own), it is likely if you did anything serious, especially against someone who does still have citizenship with some nation, you would still face prosecution for any crimes, perhaps via an International Criminal Court or even a special tribunal. (Although, in this case, we’re hoping such a court will be given the new, much cooler moniker of Galactic Criminal Court at some point.)
As the director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, Henry Hertzfeld, states,
Although there is no sovereignty outside a spacecraft, there are analogies to the law on ships in international waters and also to issues that might occur in Antarctica; both places with no national sovereignty. So, although this is not a settled issue, my reading is that being in space and technically outside of any nation’s sovereignty or jurisdiction is not sufficient to avoid being charged with a crime…
Of course, even then there still is a lot of potential for gray area. For example, one of the world’s leading space lawyers, Joanne Gabrynowicz, outlines one such scenario for people on the International Space Station, which has a pretty well defined set of rules as previously noted,
Each of the modules is registered by a different country, so that means that if you’re in the US laboratory, you’re on a piece of US territory… If you mosey over to the Japanese module, you are now in Japan. So, it’s like an embassy. It’s national territory….What happens if it’s been a long hard day at the American lab, and a European astronaut punches a Canadian in the American module, but then runs over to the Japanese module? Who has jurisdiction over that? …
But, of course, that is just a jurisdictional issue. If a serious enough crime was committed, the person’s going to get prosecuted somewhere. It just might be a bit of a bureaucratic nightmare in some cases to sort out where.
When moving over to scenarios like actual colonization of places like Mars, once a colony is setup, it will no doubt enact its own laws, which those living there will have to agree to, whether explicitly or implicitly, not too dissimilar to moving to a new country on Earth. And likewise it is probable that extradition agreements and the like will be setup little different from agreements between nations on Earth.
Coming back around to the question of if there has ever yet been a crime committed in space, this allegedly occurred during astronaut Anna McClain’s six month stint on the ISS in 2019. During that span, she supposedly accessed her recently ex-wife’s bank account several times, allegedly to double check there was enough money in the accounts to cover bills and to care for the pair’s son. On the other hand, her ex, Summer Worden, took the matter more seriously, viewing it as illegal access to her accounts, thus potentially subjecting McClain to certain identity theft laws.
Because McClain is an American citizen, was aboard the American module of the International Space Station when she allegedly committed the crime, was using one of NASA’s computers at the time, and her supposed victim is likewise American, she was very clearly under the jurisdiction of the United States. However, as far as we can find, nothing ever came of these accusations other than a NASA investigation and a whole lot of news reports. McClain is still an astronaut for NASA and otherwise no further updates on the matter have ever been made public, so presumably either it was decided no crime was actually committed or the former couple settled the matter amicably and the investigation was dropped.
But to sum up, no matter where you are in the universe, you can be fairly sure that judges the world over will be happy to cite similar type scenarios that have happened on Earth and existing agreements in making sure you are prosecuted for crimes, assuming said crimes were serious enough to be worth the effort involved, or someone kicks up enough of a stink about it. And while there still is plenty of gray area, as soon as space tourism becomes a relatively common thing and people start committing crimes in space, it seems likely that the various nations the world over will quickly develop a comprehensive and more definitive set of rules to govern such things when the need arises.
All that said, there are an awful lot of ways a seemingly innocuous sequence of events can lead to someone’s death in space. Accidents happen- a faulty valve isn’t necessarily proof someone murdered someone else, even if they loathed each other. In some such ways someone could die in space, any halfway decent lawyer could instill reasonable doubt in the minds of the jurors, especially if hard evidence couldn’t be attained. After all, the expense of investigating such a crime thoroughly may well be enormous in some cases, thus making it so such a detailed investigation may not be done, or even possible.
So let’s just say in many cases it’s going to be a lot more difficult to tell if there was someone behind such an event, or if it was just an accident… Leading us to perhaps one of the cooler new jobs that are going to be a thing in the coming decades- space detectives.
If you liked this article, you might also enjoy our new popular podcast, The BrainFood Show (iTunes, Spotify, Google Play Music, Feed), as well as:
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Ever wonder what the longest prison sentence ever given out is? Well, wonder no more. This was a whopping 141,078 years. It was given in 1989 in Thailand to Chamoy Thipyaso and each of her seven accomplices for defrauding more than 16,000 Chinese investors as a part of a massive Ponzi scheme.
If you’re wondering, in the United States, the longest sentence for some form of corporate fraud was only 845 years. This was handed down in 2000 to Sholam Weiss, for his role in the collapse of National Heritage Life Insurance. By contrast, Bernie Madoff was only given 150 years for his 2009 conviction of defrauding thousands in a multi-billion dollar Ponzi scheme.
The second and third longest prison sentences (for any crime), globally, were given to Jamal Zougam (42,924 years) and Emilio Suárez Trashorras (49,922 years) for their roles in the 2004 train bombings in Madrid.
As for the longest prison term overall in the United States, it was given in 1994 to Charles Schott Robinson who was convicted of six counts of rape garnering him 5,000 years in prison each- a whopping 30,000 year sentence.
Also in Oklahoma, Darron B. Anderson and Allan W. McLaurin each had in the thousands of years ranges of prison time imposed for the kidnapping, robbery and rape of an elderly woman. Anderson was initially only sentenced to 2,200 years, but upon his second trial (he appealed and won a new one), that second jury imposed a sentence of 11,250 years. McLaurin was initially sentenced to 21,250 years, but the appellate court reduced it to a mere 500 years.
The longest prison sentence imposed in Australia was given to Martin Bryant in 1996 for the Port Arthur, Tasmania massacre where he killed 35 and injured 23 others. His sentence included 1,035 years without parole plus 35 life sentences, one for each life he took.Expand for References
- What Happens if You Commit a Crime in Space
- The Res Communis Space Law
- Outer Space Treaty
- Rescue Agreement
- Moon Agreement
- The Intergovernmental Agreement on the Space Station
- Space Crime
- Space Jurisdiction
- Outer Space Treaty
- Rescue Agreement
- Moon Treaty
- Common Heritage of Mankind
- What Happens When an Astronaut Commits a Crime in Space
- Space Station Crime
- Crimes in Space
- Investigating Crime in Space
- Intergovernmental Treaty in Space
- Space Station Agreement
- How Mars Will Be Policed
- What is UNCLOS
- United Nations Treaty and Principals on Outer Space
- Anna McClain Interview
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If you’re somewhere on the moon, in what amounts to a “company town” essentially slave labor, and happen to have a cooperative AI and a mass-accelerator at your disposal, it might be feasible to even have a revolution and take control of the means of production yourself, with your colleagues. You give Earth an ultimatum for your independence and when Earth laughs at you, you start dropping big rocks, precision guided by the AI. Big rocks falling from nearly half-a-million kilometers away send a fairly strong message. This is the plot of a RA Heinlein novel called “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” and reading it got me thinking deeply about space-law and space-jurisdiction.
Hi Davin, thanks for this awesome article. Just wanted to clarify that while Joanne Gabrynowicz remains one of the world’s leading space lawyers, she is no longer the editor of the Journal of Space Law. Charles Stotler and I are the directors of the Center for Air and Space Law at the University of Mississippi School of Law which is the only law school in the United States to offer a Concentration and a master of laws in Air and Space Law. Of course, the Center is also continuing the tradition of excellence that the global space law community has come to expect from the Journal of Space Law and we are proud to have student editors working to manage and produce two issues each year. If you ever have any more questions about air or space law – especially about the human aspects of space exploration (which is our focus) don’t hesitate to call or write! Happy New Year!
Why the space force would come and arrest you no matter where in Galaxy you run to.