Say you commit a robbery in a country outside of the US. However robbery is legal in that country. If you come back to the USA, can you be charged?

  • Can you name a country where robbery is legal?
    – phoog
    Commented Jun 14, 2022 at 16:08
  • 3
    No, as this is just an example. Commented Jun 15, 2022 at 7:19
  • My point is that the basic crimes are illegal everywhere. The point of criminalizing robbery is to maintain social order. The US has little direct interest in maintaining social order in other countries, and it is furthermore intrusive of the US to attempt to do so. Instead, each country leaves every other country to the maintenance of its own social order on its own terms.
    – phoog
    Commented Jun 15, 2022 at 8:50
  • Can you name a US jurisdiction that would care about your non-robbery or explain why any US jurisdiction would care?
    – jmoreno
    Commented Oct 12, 2022 at 0:27
  • Someone arrested and taken to court for something that hadn’t been a crime for nearly 30 years: wthr.com/article/news/trending-viral/….
    – jmoreno
    Commented Oct 12, 2022 at 1:45

2 Answers 2


Robbery is a state-level crime. The federal government has staked out limited possibilities for prosecution for crimes committed outside of the US (including numerous extended versions of "US soil" such as US vessels in international waters), and there are federal laws declared to be applicable within foreign countries. There is no general federal law against robbery, though there are a number of limited federal laws against robbery (bank robbery, postal robbery, breaking or entering carrier facilities). Federal law simply does not apply to stealing a TV from a person's house, that is a state crime.

There are different state-level treatments of extraterritoriality, as discussed in this article, with a near even split among the states as to whether a state presumes that its laws apply outside the state, that its laws are assumed to not apply outside the state, or there is no clear presumption. We can take the case of State v. Jack, 125 P.3d 311, where the defendant was charged with sexual assault on an Alaskan vessel in Canadian waters. The Alaskan Supreme Court found that the state had jurisdiction for a crime committed in Canada for two reasons. First, Alaskan law (AS 44.03.010(2)) says that

The jurisdiction of the state extends to water offshore from the coast of the state as follows:... (2) the high seas to the extent that jurisdiction is claimed by the United States of America, or to the extent recognized by the usages and customs of international law or by agreement to which the United States of America or the state is a party


AS 44.03.030(1) This chapter does not limit or restrict (1) the jurisdiction of the state over a person or subject inside or outside the state that is exercisable by reason of citizenship, residence, or another reason recognized by law

In this case, because the crime took place on a US vessel outside the US, Alaska could and did claim jurisdiction – under Alaskan law – because the federal government could have. So the answer in part is "it depends on state law", that is, has the state statutorily claimed jurisdiction for that kind of act?

Theoretically, a state could make it a crime for a resident to commit robbery in a foreign country where robbery was not a crime (to the extent that a state presumes extraterritorial jurisdiction for a crime). No state has done so.


Extraterritorial jurisdiction

Any authority can claim ETJ over any external territory they wish. However, for the claim to be effective in the external territory (except by the exercise of force), it must be agreed either with the legal authority in the external territory, or with a legal authority that covers both territories. When unqualified, ETJ usually refers to such an agreed jurisdiction, or it will be called something like "claimed ETJ".

Some nations (e.g. France) claim ETJ over all their citizens everywhere. Others (e.g. the US) claim limited ETJ.

US laws are not extraterritorial except:

  1. The high seas and any other waters within the admiralty and maritime jurisdiction of the United States and out of the jurisdiction of any particular state, including any vessels owned by US persons that are travelling on them[28]

  2. Any US vessel travelling on the Great Lakes, connecting waters or the Saint Lawrence River (where that river forms part of the Canada–United States

  3. Any lands reserved or acquired for the use of the United States, and under the exclusive or concurrent jurisdiction thereof

  4. Any island claimed under the Guano Islands Act

  5. Any US aircraft flying over waters in the same manner as US vessels

  6. Any US spacecraft when in flight

  7. Any place outside the jurisdiction of any nation with respect to an offense by or against a national of the United States[29]

  8. 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

  9. Offenses committed by or against a national of the United States in diplomatic missions, consulates, military and other missions, together with related residences, outside the US

  10. International Parental Kidnapping Crime Act

  11. Any law that is explicitly extraterritorial in its text

In general, theft is going to be covered by local jurisdiction everywhere so US law will not apply unless it happens in the US or falls into one of the above categories.

  • 3
    There are a lot more exceptions to “US laws aren’t extraterritorial.” Any law that says it’s extraterritorial is extraterritorial, like treason, child prostitution, economic espionage, RICO violations, and the murder of a US national (all of which have extraterritorial jurisdiction if the offender is a US national). There are other crimes that the US claims universal jurisdiction over, like genocide, slavery, or air piracy.
    – cpast
    Commented May 14, 2022 at 18:01
  • 4
    The US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act is exclusively extraterritorial. It makes it a crime for US citizens or companies to offer bribes or other improper considerations to foreign officials (all of which it carefully defines) Commented May 14, 2022 at 20:33
  • #11 is the big one within the sense of this question and many of the big one are related to terrorism and international sanctions.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Jun 14, 2022 at 1:02
  • Where is France's claim of extraterritorial jurisdiction over its citizens codified?
    – phoog
    Commented Jun 14, 2022 at 16:10
  • 2
    @phoog point noted. I should have written "primarily extraterritorial" rather than "exclusively " Commented Jun 14, 2022 at 16:17

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