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Are the High Seas a Criminal Paradise?

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Over the last few weeks, NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden has applied for political asylum in some two dozen countries. Some nations turned him down for what he says were political reasons and others declined based on technicalities, but at least a few have granted him an invitation. Couldn’t a fugitive like that just kiss all us landlubbers goodbye, though, and live as a free man in international waters instead?

Not unless he’s a cartoon supervillain. Despite what spy novels and action movies would have us believe, international waters (aka trans-boundary waters or the high seas) are not a lawless free-for-all where The Man can’t hassle you over your monkey knife fights. They’re freer than countries’ territorial waters in the sense that no country can claim sovereignty over them, according to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), but that doesn’t mean that countries can’t apply their laws or jurisdiction to events or people out there.

The Law of the Sea

Under UNCLOS, “every State shall effectively exercise its jurisdiction and control in administrative, technical and social matters over ships flying its flag.” So a fugitive in a ship is still subject to the laws and regulations of whatever country the vessel is registered to.

The United States can also assert jurisdiction in international waters in certain situations by other means. The U.S. Code allows the federal government to exercise “Special Maritime and Territorial Jurisdiction” over…

…any island, rock, or key containing deposits of guano, which may, at the discretion of the President, be considered as appertaining to the United States.

…any place outside the jurisdiction of any nation with respect to an offense by or against a national of the United States.

…to the extent permitted by international law, any foreign vessel during a voyage having a scheduled departure from or arrival in the United States with respect to an offense committed by or against a national of the United States.

International law also generally recognizes a country’s assertion to jurisdiction outside its territory if…

…the offense occurs in one country but has effects on another.

…the offender is a citizen of the prosecuting state.

…the offense threatens the vital interests of the prosecuting state.

…the victim is a citizen of the prosecuting state.

…the offense is universally condemned by the international community (piracy, slave trafficking or terrorism, for examples).

When the President can decide that whatever bat poop–covered rock your hideout is on belongs to the U.S. and then send the law after you, the high seas don’t seem like such a safe bet anymore. Of course, if a fugitive is on a boat flying a foreign flag in international waters, the U.S. might be less likely to violate the jurisdiction of that country to avoid a diplomatic mess. But that’s still not a guarantee for a fugitive’s freedom. The U.S. has a long history of “extraordinary or irregular,” the capture and transfer of criminal fugitives or suspects outside of normal means, and sometimes in violation of international law and foreign sovereignty. If the FBI or CIA will slip into another country to nab someone, they’ll probably get over any qualms they have about storming a foreign boat to do the same.

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What’s the Difference Between Prison and Jail?
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Many people use the terms jail and prison interchangeably, and while both terms refer to areas where people are held, there's a substantial difference between the two methods of incarceration. Where a person who is accused of a crime is held, and for how long, is a factor in determining the difference between the two—and whether a person is held in a jail or a prison is largely determined by the severity of the crime they have committed.

A jail (or, for our British friends, a gaol) refers to a small, temporary holding facility—run by local governments and supervised by county sheriff departments—that is designed to detain recently arrested people who have committed a minor offense or misdemeanor. A person can also be held in jail for an extended period of time if the sentence for their offense is less than a year. There are currently 3163 local jail facilities in the United States.

A jail is different from the similarly temporary “lockup”—sort of like “pre-jail”—which is located in local police departments and holds offenders unable to post bail, people arrested for public drunkenness who are kept until they are sober, or, most importantly, offenders waiting to be processed into the jail system.

A prison, on the other hand, is usually a large state- or federal-run facility meant to house people convicted of a serious crime or felony, and whose sentences for those crimes surpass 365 days. A prison could also be called a “penitentiary,” among other names.

To be put in a state prison, a person must be convicted of breaking a state law. To be put in a federal prison, a person must be convicted of breaking federal law. Basic amenities in a prison are more extensive than in a jail because, obviously, an inmate is likely to spend more than a year of his or her life confined inside a prison. As of 2012, there were 4575 operating prisons in the U.S.—the most in the world. The country with the second highest number of operating prisons is Russia, which has just 1029 facilities.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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What Do Morticians Do With the Blood They Take Out of Dead Bodies?
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Zoe-Anne Barcellos:

The blood goes down the sink drain, into the sewer system.

I am not a mortician, but I work for a medical examiner/coroner. During an autopsy, most blood is drained from the decedent. This is not on purpose, but a result of gravity. Later a mortician may or may not embalm, depending on the wishes of the family.

Autopsies are done on a table that has a drain at one end; this drain is placed over a sink—a regular sink, with a garbage disposal in it. The blood and bodily fluids just drain down the table, into the sink, and down the drain. This goes into the sewer, like every other sink and toilet, and (usually) goes to a water treatment plant.

You may be thinking that this is biohazardous waste and needs to be treated differently. [If] we can’t put oil, or chemicals (like formalin) down the drains due to regulations, why is blood not treated similarly? I would assume because it is effectively handled by the water treatment plants. If it wasn’t, I am sure the regulations would be changed.

Now any items that are soiled with blood—those cannot be thrown away in the regular trash. Most clothing worn by the decedent is either retained for evidence or released with the decedent to the funeral home—even if they were bloody.

But any gauze, medical tubing, papers, etc. that have blood or bodily fluids on them must be thrown away into a biohazardous trash. These are lined with bright red trash liners, and these are placed in a specially marked box and taped closed. These boxes are stacked up in the garage until they are picked up by a specialty garbage company. I am not sure, but I am pretty sure they are incinerated.

Additionally anything sharp or pointy—like needles, scalpels, etc.—must go into a rigid “sharps” container. When they are 2/3 full we just toss these into one of the biotrash containers.

The biotrash is treated differently, as, if it went to a landfill, then the blood (and therefore the bloodborne pathogens like Hepatitis and HIV) could be exposed to people or animals. Rain could wash it into untreated water systems.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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