US Department of Justice to step up prosecution of unruly airline passengers


As air travel picks up across the United States during this holiday season, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) has directed US attorneys to prioritize the prosecution of airline passengers who have committed federal crimes aboard aircraft.

The directive came as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reports that as of November 23, 2021 there were 5,338 unruly passenger reports sent to the DOJ. An additional 3,856 incidents where passengers caused problems over COVID-19 mask rules were also reported. 

The FAA does not have criminal prosecutorial authority but has been working with the FBI and Department of Justice to refer cases as appropriate.

In a memorandum addressed to the Federal Bureau of Investigation and all US Attorneys, Attorney General Merrick B. Garland said that he is directing United States Attorneys to prioritize prosecution of federal crimes occurring on commercial aircraft that endanger the safety of passengers, flight crews, and flight attendants. 

He stated: “I am further directing United States Attorneys to communicate to the relevant federal, state, local, Tribal, and territorial prosecutorial authorities and law enforcement agencies (including airport authority law enforcement) in their districts that this is a Departmental priority.”

Garland also addressed the severity and consequence of unruly behavior in flights. 

“Passengers who assault, intimidate, or threaten violence against flight crews and flight attendants do more than harm those employees; they prevent the performance of critical duties that help ensure safe air travel. Similarly, when passengers commit violent acts against other passengers in the close confines of a commercial aircraft, the conduct endangers everyone aboard.”

Federal law prohibits assaults, intimidation, and threats of violence that interfere with flight crews and flight attendants, as well as other enumerated criminal acts that occur during flight. The laws of other jurisdictions may also prohibit criminal acts occurring on commercial aircraft. 

Garland further stressed: “The Department of Justice is committed to using its resources to do its part to prevent violence, intimidation, threats of violence, and other criminal behavior that endangers the safety of passengers, flight crews, and flight attendants on commercial aircraft.”


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