Bad behavior on flights prosecutable under Patriot Act

Foul language, drunkenness common offenses

By Ralph Vartabedian and Peter Pae
Los Angeles Times / January 25, 2009
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OKLAHOMA CITY - Tamera Jo Freeman was on a Frontier Airlines flight to Denver in 2007 when her two children began to quarrel and then spilled a Bloody Mary into her lap.

She spanked each of them on the thigh with three swats. It was a small incident, but one that in the heightened anxiety after the Sept. 11 attacks eventually would have enormous ramifications for Freeman and her children.

A flight attendant confronted Freeman, who responded by hurling a few profanities and throwing what remained of a can of tomato juice on the floor.

The incident aboard the Frontier flight ultimately led to Freeman's arrest and conviction for a federal felony defined as an act of terrorism under the Patriot Act, the controversial federal law enacted after the 2001 attacks.

Freeman is one of at least 200 flight passengers who have been convicted under the amended law. In most of the cases, there was no evidence the passengers had attempted to hijack an airplane or physically attack flight crew members. Many have simply involved raised voices, foul language, and drunken behavior.

Some security specialists say the use of the law by airlines has run amok, criminalizing incidents that did not start out as threats to public safety, much less acts of terrorism.

"We have gone completely berserk on this issue," said Charles Slepian, a New York security consultant.

Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd defended the prosecutions, saying they helped improve airline security.

For decades, airline personnel and law-enforcement officials have had wide latitude in prosecuting unruly passengers, and largely maintained order under Federal Aviation Administration rules. The Sept. 11 attacks changed everything. Within two months, Congress passed the Patriot Act, a sweeping attempt to improve the nation's defenses against international terrorism.

Included were two key provisions on airline security. The first defined disruptive behavior as a terrorist act, reflecting the seismic shift in airline security. The second broadened the existing criminal law so that any attempt or conspiracy to interfere with a flight crew became a felony - a change that allowed flight personnel to act against suspicious passengers even if they hadn't begun an actual assault.

The Justice Department does not keep data on how many prosecutions or convictions have occurred, Boyd said. But according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a Syracuse University program, the federal government has obtained 208 felony convictions for disrupting a flight since 2003, when data first became available.

The single case of actual terrorism cited by Boyd was that of Richard Reid, the so-called shoe bomber, who is serving three life sentences. Reid was subdued by passengers and flight attendants on a 2001 flight from Paris to Miami after he was seen trying to ignite explosives in his shoe.

The costs of a conviction can be enormous. In Tamera Freeman's case, it cost her custody of her children.

After three months in jail, Freeman agreed to plead guilty and was released on probation. A court-appointed attorney told her it would be the fastest way to see her children, who had put in foster care in Hawaii.

Her probation required her to stay in Oklahoma City, where she grew up, and prohibited her from flying. Meanwhile, legal proceedings in Hawaii have begun to allow the children's foster parents to adopt them.

Freeman has been denied permission to attend custody hearings in Maui over the last six months, court records show.

"I have cried. I have cried for my children every day," she said. "I feel the system is failing me."

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