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Simple Assault in Airports: Let’s Not Make a Federal Case of It

| April 15, 2016

Ask any air traveler: airports can be stressful places. Flights are often missed, late, canceled or overbooked. When that happens, people are going to get upset and may even act irrationally. And if you think that sounds like a problem that should involve the federal government, you might support the most recent, quintessential example of federal overcriminalization.

An amendment to the America’s Small Business Tax Relief Act that had been proposed in the U.S. Senate would create a new federal criminal offense for simple assaults on airline employees at airports. The examples cited by proponents of the new offense for why the law is needed are irate passengers who grab name tags or commit other incidental contact when they lose their cool with a ticketing agent. Of course, simple assault is already a crime in every state.

The employees union wants this law because they believe local police are not taking these incidents seriously. This suggests that the federal government is better suited to prosecute simple assaults, which is untrue. If state and local law enforcement are not doing a good job arresting and prosecuting simple assaults, the solution is to take it up with those authorities, not to create yet another federal crime and expect a better outcome.

It is doubtful that a federal prosecutor would pursue charges, and even if they did so, it would be a waste of federal resources. There is nothing that makes employees on the ground in an airport any different from a private employee at any business who might be aggressively harassed by an angry customer.

This amendment is also a violation of the principles of federalism. There is nothing that makes crimes at an airport fall under federal jurisdiction. Consequently, these are crimes that are best prosecuted by state and local authorities.

As Jonathan Blanks at Cato aptly notes, the proposed penalty for this simple assault is rather draconian—there’s a potential prison term of ten years. And it’s even worse when compared with other simple assault laws on the federal books:

Most simple assault statutes in the federal code include sentence maximums between six months and one year. It’s hard to understand how an angry person grabbing the arm of a ticket agent walking away from them potentially carries ten times the maximum sentence if that person had instead shoved a member of Congress. (see 18 U.S.C. § 351 (e))

There’s a good argument that members of Congress passing laws like this can make you ten times angrier than any gate agent, but you shouldn’t commit a simple assault against either of them.

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