A 50-year old woman from Texas has been charged by the San Francisco federal court with interference with an aircraft flight by assault upon a flight attendant. If convicted, this could land her up to 20 years in prison.
It’s the latest incident in a concerning trend of unruly passengers onboard aircraft. The rise in cases has prompted calls from airlines and unions for more to be done and harsher punishments to be meted out to serve as a deterrent
The first hearing in Houston federal court, which occurred on November 12, 2021, initiates the first steps in a procedure to obtain an order directing Debby Dutton of Cypress, Texas to appear to face the charge against her in San Francisco federal court.
According to the US Attorney’s Office of the Northern District of California, the incident occured on June 29, 2021, when Dutton and her husband were passengers on a United Airlines flight from Alaska to San Francisco.
As is customary on flights during the pandemic, flight attendants broadcasted several safety announcements over the plane’s intercom, including about the federal mask mandate on commercial flights.
The flight attendants also announced that passengers must wear their masks at all times, and should a passenger’s mask fall while they are asleep, they (passengers) will be woken up and be told to put their masks back on.
According to the complaint affidavit, almost three and a half hours into the four and a half-hour flight, a flight attendant walked down the aisle to collect trash and check passengers for face mask compliance.
The flight attendant noticed one passenger was asleep, and that his face mask had fallen from his face. Using two fingers, the flight attendant tapped the passenger on the shoulder to advise him to adjust his face mask. The passenger complied with the request.
Sitting next to the passenger was his wife, Debby Dutton. According to the complaint affidavit, Dutton got up from her seat and angrily shouted at the flight attendant, who had already continued down the plane aisle.
The flight attendant then tried to explain that the passenger, Dutton’s husband, had not been wearing his face mask, but Dutton continued to scream and walked towards the flight attendant.
The complaint affidavit describes that Dutton pushed the flight attendant on the right arm with force enough for the attendant to step back to maintain balance. Dutton then pushed the flight attendant once more on the flight attendant’s right arm. The flight attendant told Dutton to stop.
At this point, Dutton’s husband asked her to return to her seat, which Dutton eventually did. The flight attendant immediately reported the incident to the captain.
CAUGHT OFF GUARD
The flight attendant, as described in the complaint, was caught off guard and felt threatened. The flight attendant further described the assault as painful and forceful. The pushes left bruising on the flight attendant’s right bicep.
The flight attendant sought medical attention after the flight.
Law enforcement officers subsequently interviewed multiple passengers who witnessed parts of the incident.
Dutton has been charged with one count of interference by assault, threat, or intimidation with flight crew members or attendants, in violation of Title 49, United States Code, Section 46504. The charge carries a maximum possible sentence of 20 years in prison and a fine.
In November 10, 2021, the FAA levied over $225,000 against 10 passengers for alleged unruly behavior involving assault. While the FAA can issue civil fines, it cannot pursue criminal prosecution. For that, it has to refer passengers to the Justice Department.
Unruly behavior among passengers has been a cause for concern over the past year. According to the FAA, since January 1, 2021, the organization has received more than 100 reports of passenger disturbances involving physical assault.