prize, in maritime law, the private property of an enemy that a belligerent captures at sea. For the capture of the vessel or cargo to be lawful it must be made outside neutral waters and by authority of the belligerent. A prize court, in the territory of the belligerent or in that of an allied power, must adjudicate that the property belonged to an enemy national. After the prize is captured, it is ordinarily placed in charge of a prize master and sent into port for judicial proceedings; however, if the enemy character of the ship is readily apparent, it may be destroyed at sea (after passengers, crew, and ship's papers have been removed), with the captor's government being liable for the losses of neutrals. If the prize is sold before being adjudicated, the proceeds must be delivered to the court for distribution. In the case of condemnation, the entire proceeds go to the belligerent government. In the United States, since 1899, the crew of the vessel effecting capture has had no right to share in the profits of the sale. A prize court renders a decision on the basis of the ship's papers, the testimony of those on board, and other relevant factors. If the ship is not condemned, it is released and damages are awarded where no justifiable reason for its capture has been shown. Prize law initially developed from the desire of governments to share in the profits made by ships engaged in privateering. The governments also wished to minimize diplomatic claims for damages by establishing regular procedures for disposing of captures. Although they nominally apply international law, prize courts (in the United States, the federal courts) in awarding judgment have been influenced, or even bound, by the national law. To avoid this, prize cases are sometimes referred to international tribunals. Efforts to establish an international prize court with appellate jurisdiction, however, have not succeeded.
See J. W. Garner, Prize Law during the World War (1927); C. J. Colombos, Treatise on the Law of Prize (3d ed. 1949).