Each day in this country some 2.5 million people board roughly 43,000 flights on commercial airlines at more than five thousand public airports. Commercial airline travel can be, and quite often is, an unpleasant experience for a laundry list of reasons. One of the worst reasons is either delayed or re-routed flights. This especially frustrating when the delay id caused by an unruly passenger. Your life becomes seriously inconvenienced because a fellow passenger did not leave his or her frustration at home or failed to throw their anger into the overhead bend with their carry-on bag.
According to Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) enforcement records, between 2007 and October 2017, there were on average 128 unruly passenger incidents each year during commercial flights in the U.S.
When an individual purchases a commercial airline ticket in the U.S., they are entering into what is called a “contract of carriage” with the airline service provider. This contract describes “prohibited behavior” by a passenger as “disorderly,” “offensive,” “abusive,” and/or “intimidating.” These cumbersome contracts, which consist of 40 or more pages, provide the service provider with the legal authority, through passenger consent, to boot a passenger off a flight if he or she engages in any prohibited behavior spelled out in generic terms in the contract.
But what happens when unruly behavior becomes criminal?
John Wayne Lynch, II found out.
Alcohol Plays Role in Unruly Behavior
On August 4, 2015, Lynch boarded a U.S. Airways flight from Philadelphia to Denver. Because he had missed an earlier connection, the airline moved him to first class to make up for the inconvenience. While waiting at the airport and perhaps out of annoyance at missing his earlier connection, Lynch consumed six beers before boarding his first-class flight.
That was a mistake. Alcohol and air travel do not always mix well, especially when the passenger is frustrated.
In a February 5, 2018 decision, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals described Lynch’s behavior once his flight got underway:
Lynch “began behaving in a loud, unruly manner. He repeatedly placed his hands on first-class flight attendant Kimberly Ander’s lower back as she was serving him beverages, which made he feel ‘very uncomfortable,’ and she tried to move out of his reach each time. Later in the flight, Defendant ‘hugged [Attendant Ander] and kissed [her] on the neck’ on his way back from the bathroom, causing her to push him away and ask him not to do that. Even after Attendant Ander verbally asked Defendant not to place his hand on her lower back, he continued to do so. She testified this unwanted touching emotionally impacted her ability to do her duties.
“Defendant’s behavior led Attendant Amber to refuse to serve him a third in-flight drink, at which point he came ‘irate,’ started yelling at her, stood up from his seat, and shouted profanities such as ‘f*** this airline.’ Fearful that the situation was ‘going to go over the edge and become physical or violent at any moment,’ Attendant Amber called one of the other flight attendants to come help her in first-class. She also prepared a rubber ice mallet, handcuffs, and a pot of hot coffee to use in case Defendant became violent. Main cabin flight attendant Carolyn Scott then came to assist Attendant Amber in attempting to calm Defendant, leaving the third flight attendant in charge of the remaining 138 main cabin passengers, including an unaccompanied minor who had been in Attendant Scott’s care. Attendant Scott ask Defendant to calm down, at which pointed he repeatedly yelled, ‘F*** you, c***.’ Defendant also shouted, ‘let’s go’ at Attendant Scott and threatened to ‘take this airline down’ through a lawsuit and negative social media.”
Airplane Captain Reports Disturbance
The flight attendants stayed in constant contact with the flight crew during these disturbances. At one point during Lynch’s two and one-half hour tirade the captain turned the flight over to his co-pilot so he could call dispatch and report the disturbance.
Unruly Passenger Indicted in Federal Court
Law enforcement authorities were waiting at the Denver airport to take Lynch into custody when the flight landed. He continued his verbal abuse, this time with attacks on the authorities. This behavior most probably assisted the local U.S. Attorney’s Office in bringing criminal charges against Lynch under 49 U.S.C. § 46504—which prohibits in-flight assaults or intimidation of a flight crew member or attendant sufficient to interfere with the performance of their duties. The statute carries a penalty up to 20 years with the possibility of a fine.
Lynch was convicted by a jury of the offense in February 2016. He received a sentence of four months, followed by a three-year period of supervised release. He appealed his conviction and sentence to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals. The basis of his appeal was that the trial court erred when it ruled that § 49504 was not a specific intent crime.
General Intent vs. Specific Intent
There are two kinds of criminal offenses: general intent crimes and specific intent crimes. The Tenth Circuit defined a general intent crime as act done “voluntarily and intentionally, and not because of mistake or accident” while a specific intent crime requires that a defendant act “not only with knowledge of what he is doing, but [also] with the objective of completing some unlawful act.”
Put another way, a specific intent crime requires mens rea (literal Latin meaning “guilty mind”) whereas a general intent crime requires only that a defendant understand the facts that make his conduct unlawful.
The Tenth Circuit held that § 49504 is a general intent crime. In other words, all the federal government must prove to a jury is that an unruly passenger understood that his prohibited behavior interfered with the flight crew or attendants’ abilities to perform their duties.
Let this decision be a warning to unruly passengers: unruly behavior that interferes with the in-flight ability of a flight attendant or crew member to do their job is all that is necessary to bring about a federal indictment and an all expense paid trip to prison.