Convictions Upheld for Passengers Who Verbally Abused Flight Crew

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By Jordan S. Rubin

A man who told a flight attendant who denied his group alcohol that “we can have whatever the f*** we want” can’t get convictions for intimidating and interfering with a flight crew overturned, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit held.

Judge Jerry E. Smith’s Jan. 8 opinion rejected the jury bias, First Amendment, and other claims of Jonathan Petras, as well as those of his co-traveler and co-defendant Wisam Shaker, as it recounted their behavior aboard a Southwest Airlines flight in September 2015.

Smith’s opinion rattled off a slew of “profane” and “aggressive” words and actions toward the cabin crew by Petras, Shaker, and others flying from San Diego to Chicago for a soccer tournament.

The pilots considered their actions threatening enough to divert the plane with 117 passengers to Amarillo, Texas, where the two men were prosecuted and convicted in federal court.

Petras’s and Shaker’s convictions stand, the Fifth Circuit said, affirming their respective sentences of seven and five months in prison.

The trial court didn’t clearly err in rejecting their jury bias claims, the appeals court said. It applied the U.S. Supreme Court’s three-step test from its landmark 1986 ruling in Batson v. Kentucky.

And the intimidation statute itself is lawful, the Fifth Circuit said. There isn’t a “substantial” chance that the statute will chill the protected speech of third parties not before the court, it said, tossing aside their First Amendment claim that the law sweeps too broadly.

Judges Edith H. Jones and Edward C. Prado joined the opinion.

The case is United States v. Petras , 5th Cir., No. 16-11631, 1/8/18 .

To contact the reporter on this story: Jordan S. Rubin in Washington at jrubin@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: C. Reilly Larson at rlarson@bloomberglaw.com

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