Las Vegas Sun

January 29, 2015

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Sun editorial:

Felonious flying

Terrorism law’s expansion goes too far in trying to control unruly airline passengers

During a flight to Denver on Frontier Airlines, Tamera Jo Freeman swatted her two children on the thighs after they quarreled over a window shade and then spilled a drink in her lap.

A flight attendant told her to stop and Freeman responded with a few profanities and threw a can of tomato juice on the floor. As a result, she was arrested and charged with a felony under a Patriot Act provision designed to combat terrorism.

The Los Angeles Times reported Tuesday that at least 200 people have been convicted under the provision, and in most of those cases, there was no evidence of any terrorist links or attacks on crew members. Instead, airlines have had the ability to use the law to constrain passengers’ behavior. Most of the cases have involved passengers who were intoxicated or raised their voices in arguments with flight attendants.

Nathan Sales, a George Mason University law professor, helped write the Patriot Act when he was at the Justice Department. He said the legal provision being used was to put terrorists in violation of the law before they could act.

“A woman spanking her child is not as great a threat to aviation as members of al-Qaida with box cutters,” he said. “That much is clear.”

But the way things have worked, it hasn’t been clear at all. For example, a California couple spent four days in jail after a flight attendant ordered them to stop engaging in what was perceived to be “overt sexual activity,” and the man snapped at the attendant. Federal prosecutors charged him with a felony of interfering with a flight crew, which comes with a potential 20-year prison sentence.

It also should be clear that unruly passengers should not be tolerated in the air, but this seems to be going way too far. A terrorism charge for a spanking? A felony for yelling? Federal regulators and Congress should restore common sense to the law.

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