The federal government regulates aviation activities nationwide. Thus, crimes involving planes and airports usually are prosecuted in federal courts. Since strict sentencing guidelines apply to federal crimes, the penalties for aviation offenses can be severe. A defendant may face a longer prison term than what they would receive for a similar offense under state law. Non-violent offenders in the federal system may be eligible for early release based on good behavior, but most crimes on planes involve forms of violence.
Special aircraft jurisdiction generally provides the basis for federal prosecution of crimes on planes. As provided by Title 49 of the US Code, this jurisdiction may arise when an aircraft is in flight. This covers not only situations in which a plane is literally off the ground but also situations in which the doors to the plane are closed before takeoff or after landing. Special aircraft jurisdiction applies to crimes committed on planes in the US, planes operated by US commercial airlines, and US military aircraft. Crimes also fall within special aircraft jurisdiction if they occur on a flight with a US departure or destination, or if a plane lands in the US with someone who has committed certain aviation offenses (as defined by international law) on board. Finally, special aircraft jurisdiction covers conduct on private aircraft that has been leased without a crew to anyone with a US principal place of business or permanent residence.
Rules for Hijacked Planes
Any hijacked plane that arrives in the US falls within special aircraft jurisdiction if a hijacker is on the plane, even if the flight did not originate in the US and was not intended to arrive there.
Types of Crimes on Planes
Two of the most serious aviation crimes involve piracy, which means violently seizing control of a plane in flight. Federal law separates these crimes into piracy within special aircraft jurisdiction and piracy outside special aircraft jurisdiction. When piracy occurs outside special aircraft jurisdiction, a federal prosecutor must show either that a US citizen was on board the plane, the defendant is a US citizen, or the defendant was later found in US territory. Both types of piracy include attempt or conspiracy to commit this crime within their definitions.
Other types of aviation crimes under federal law include:
Interference with crew members or attendants through assault or intimidation (including attempt or conspiracy)
Interference with airport security screeners through assault
Possessing or placing a weapon or explosive on a plane (including attempt or conspiracy)
Conduct that would constitute any of certain enumerated crimes (such as assault, murder, manslaughter, theft, robbery, or sexual abuse) if it occurred within the maritime or territorial jurisdiction of the US
Moreover, federal law criminalizes threats to commit piracy within special aircraft jurisdiction, interfere with flight crew members or attendants, possess or place a weapon or explosive on a plane, or engage in conduct that constitutes an enumerated crime. The prosecutor must show that the defendant appeared to have the determination and will to carry out the threat. Knowingly providing false information about an alleged attempt to commit one of these crimes also is prohibited.
Sentencing for Aviation Crimes
In addition to fines, a defendant convicted of a crime on a plane may face a long prison term:
Piracy: mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years (life imprisonment or the death penalty if a death resulted)
Interfering with crew members or attendants: maximum term of 20 years, but no maximum if a dangerous weapon was involved
Interfering with airport security screeners: maximum term of 10 years, but no maximum if a dangerous weapon was involved
Possessing or placing a weapon or explosive on a plane: maximum term of 10 years, but 20 years if the behavior showed a disregard for human life and no maximum if a death resulted
Threats or false information: maximum term of five years