Federal Crimes on Airplanes: Flying is not as fun anymore

February 22, 2013 by Paul Kish

Recent publicity about airline passengers accused of federal crimes while on airplanes (such as the executive accused of hitting a crying child while on a Delta flight arriving here in Atlanta) got me to thinking about how flying has changed over the years. It's much less fun, that's for sure. The recent publicity reminded me also that over the years I have represented many people accused of crimes while on airplanes. The federal prosecutors are bringing more and more criminal cases based on actions of passengers in airplanes. Such cases are challenging, even though on occasion we have been able to get good results for our clients.

I recall one case where our client was accused of basically "touching himself" while sitting next to a couple of teenage girls. We had a long trial, a challenging sentencing hearing, but all along I had hope that we might prevail. We lost, but not until we made the other side work very hard. Here is the final ruling by the Court of Appeals. I still think we were right.

Some of the recent cases also reminded me of a medical doctor I represented who got caught up in the post 9-11 laws that criminalize lots of innocent conduct. One of those laws (18 United States Code, section 1038) makes it a crime to make a false report of something, which if it was true, would be a terrorist act. Through a series of mishaps, the doctor was pulled off a plane, but they would not remove his luggage, and planned on sending the flight along without him but leaving his bags on board. He complained, explaining that was stupid, in that for all they knew, his bags could contain explosives. That was not a smart thing to say, but it also was not a crime, in my estimation. Over the course of several years, I filed hundreds of pages of legal motions challenging the statute, and argued that the doctor had a First Amendment right to make a truthful statement: it is stupid to allow a passenger's bags to remain on a flight when the passenger himself is no longer one of the passengers. After lots of work, we eventually convinced the prosecutors to drop all charges. The incident still pops up from time to time when the doctor's medical license is up for renewal, but every time it has we convinced the regulatory bodies that he did nothing wrong.

The federal authorities like to make criminal cases when activities take place on airplanes. I probably will see more of these in the years ahead.