Obnoxious Behavior Worth Twenty Years?

As it always happens in criminal cases, there is a dispute about whether there was an attempt by the two defendants to “join the mile high club” in the first place, and exactly what words one of the defendants said when “interrupted” by the stewardess.

But this is no laughing matter. Carl Persing and Dawn Sewell are facing up to twenty years in a federal penitentiary for, well, just read the probable cause affidavit.

Without excusing these particular defendants’ behavior, Daniel Solove asks whether the federal statute criminalizing Interference with Flight Crew Members or Flight Attendants, 49 U.S.C. 46504, is overbroad both in general and as applied in this case:

An individual on an aircraft … who…interferes with the performance of the duties of the member or attendant or lessens the ability of the member or attendant to perform those duties, or attempts or conspires to do such an act, shall be fined under title 18, imprisoned for not more than 20 years, or both.

Although the couple's angry behavior is problematic, § 46504 strikes me as way too broad -- perhaps so broad as to be unconstitutionally vague. What exactly does "intimidating" a flight attendant mean? What does "interferes with the performance of the duties of the member or attendant or lessens the ability of the member or attendant to perform those duties" mean? Being an obnoxious passenger should be punished, but the hefty possible penalties in this statute seem to be designed for passengers who pose serious threats, not passengers who merely spark the ire of a flight attendant.

This is a good example of taking the worst possible behavior that could conceivably fit a statute, attaching a huge penalty range to it, and then applying it in much lesser situations. America, land of overpunishment, home of the not-so-free

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