Ninth Circuit upholds sentencing enhancement for unruly passenger

U.S. v. Gonzalez (9th Cir. (Nev.) July 3, 2007).  Just after takeoff, a passenger stood up, complained of heart problems and requested oxygen.  He then became increasingly agitated and started demanding to the flight attendants that the pilots land the aircraft.  The passenger then stated that he had a bomb and started opening overhead bins.  The flight attendants and other passengers to tried to restrain the unruly passenger, who fought back.  At that point, in the words of one witness, “all hell broke loose.”  Eventually, the passenger was restrained with plastic handcuffs and the aircraft was diverted back to the airport from which it had taken off, where the FBI arrested the passenger.

The unruly passenger pled guilty to interference with a flight crew member in violation of 49 U.S.C. § 46504.  He appealed the federal district court’s decision to impose a nine-level sentencing enhancement for “recklessly endangering the safety of the aircraft and passengers” under U.S. Sentencing Guideline § 2A5.2, which is entitled “Interference with Flight Crew Member or Flight Attendant.”  The enhancement resulted in a 27-month sentence.

On appeal, the passenger argued that the enhancement did not apply because he had interfered with the flight crew and endangered the other passengers but had not endangered the aircraft itself.  The passenger contended that he had not endangered the aircraft because he neither caused it actual harm nor did he actually have a bomb with him on the aircraft.

The passenger’s arguments were too far-fetched for even the liberal Ninth Circuit.  The court sensibly reasoned that because “an aircraft is a captive, closed environment in which the safety of the passengers and the integrity of the aircraft are closely intertwined,” the passenger’s chaos-causing statements and other conduct not only interfered with the flight crew and endangered the other passengers but also endangered the aircraft itself.

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