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United States v. Ducore

United States District Court, E.D. Virginia, Alexandria Division

May 7, 2018

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA,
v.
ROBIN DOROTHY DUCORE, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          T.S. Ellis, III Judge

         On February 7, 2018, defendant Robin Ducore was indicted by the grand jury in the Eastern District of Virginia on one count of interference with flight crew members and attendants, in violation of 49 U.S.C. § 46504. See United States v. Ducore, No. 1:18-cr-68 (E.D. Va. Feb. 7, 2018) (Indictment). The indictment arises out of an incident that occurred on a JetBlue flight traveling from the Dominican Republic to New York City, New York in July 2017. At issue, pretrial, is the parties' dispute over whether the crime defined in § 46504 requires the government to prove specific intent - that defendant had the specific intent to intimidate the flight crew - or whether the crime defined in § 46504 is a general intent crime requiring only that the government prove that defendant's acts were voluntary and intentional.

         The matter has been fully briefed, and because oral argument would not aid in the decisional process, the issue is now ripe for disposition.

         I.

         The indictment alleges that on July 29, 2017, on JetBlue Flight 1528 flying from the Dominican Republic to New York City, defendant assaulted a flight attendant, disregarded flight attendant instructions, directed aggressive and abusive language towards the flight crew and fellow passengers, and engaged in other inappropriate behavior. Ultimately, as a result of defendant's actions, Flight 1528 was diverted from New York, its original destination, to Washington Dulles International Airport.

         II.

         The parties dispute whether § 46504 defines a crime that requires specific intent or general intent with respect to the intimidation element. General intent crimes require only that the act be done “voluntarily and intentionally, and not because of mistake or accident.” United States v. Blair, 54 F.3d 639, 642 (10th Cir. 1995). Thus, if § 46504 requires only general intent, then the government need not prove that defendant specifically intended to intimidate flight crew members. By contrast, specific intent crimes require that a defendant act “not only with knowledge of what he is doing, but [also] with the objective of completing some unlawful act.” Id. Accordingly, if § 46504 is a specific intent crime, then the government must prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that defendant specifically intended to intimidate flight crew members.

         The parties' dispute presents a question of statutory interpretation, and accordingly, analysis properly begins with the text of the statute at issue which provides in pertinent part as follows:

[a]n individual on an aircraft in the special aircraft jurisdiction of the United States who, by assaulting or intimidating a flight crew member or flight attendant of the aircraft, interferes with the performance of the duties of the member or attendant or lessens the ability of the member or attendant to perform those duties, or attempts or conspires to do such an act, shall be fined under title 18, imprisoned for not more than 20 years, or both.

49 U.S.C. § 46504. On its face and by its plain terms, § 46504 does not require the government to prove specific intent with respect to the assault or intimidation elements of the offense.[1] This is important, as it is well-settled that “[i]n the absence of an explicit statement that a crime requires specific intent, courts [] hold that only general intent is needed.” United States v. Lewis, 780 F.2d 1140, 1142-43 (4th Cir. 1986).[2] This presumption, paired with the plain language of the statute, points convincingly to the conclusion that § 46504 requires only general intent with respect to each of its elements; § 46504 is not a specific intent offense.

         This interpretation of § 46504 comports not only with the statute's plain text, but also serves to promote the statute's purpose of ensuring air travel safety. The Ninth Circuit, in interpreting § 46504's essentially identical predecessor statute, [3] made clear that the general intent requirement serves the statute's underlying purpose:

[T]he goal which Congress sought in this provision of the statute was to deter the commission of crimes which, if committed on the terrain below, might be considered relatively minor, but when perpetrated on an aircraft in flight would endanger the lives of many. The primary danger to be averted is not the formation of a specific intent to interfere with aircraft operations but the criminal act of an assault [or] intimidation ... upon airline personnel during flight.

United States v. Meeker, 527 F.2d 12, 14 (9th Cir. 1975) (internal citations omitted). More recently, the Tenth Circuit has confirmed that “a general intent interpretation of § 46504 best achieves the statute's legislative purpose of protecting air travel safety.” Lynch, 881 F.3d at 816.

         Here, as in Meeker and Lynch, a general intent interpretation of § 46504 best advances the statutory purpose of protecting air travel safety by criminalizing acts of assault or intimidation perpetrated against members of a flight crew which might interfere with the flight crew's performance of their duties, irrespective of whether the perpetrator is ...


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