High (Flying) Crimes: Where is Venue Proper for Crimes Committed on an Airplane in Flight?

Background

Determining proper venue for a trial is essential to guarantee the constitutional right to a fair trial. The determination also helps to avoid imposing undue hardship on that defendant in the course of the already strenuous and expensive litigation process by forcing her to defend in “an environment alien” to her. United States v. Johnson (1944).

With regard to criminal proceedings, all crimes must be prosecuted in the district in which the crimes were allegedly committed. In furtherance of this, the Supreme Court has provided a two-part inquiry to determine in which district the alleged crime was committed and, therefore, in which district venue is proper. “(A) court must initially identify the conduct constituting the offense (the nature of the crime) and then discern the location of the commission of the criminal acts.” United States v. Rodriguez-Moreno (1999).

The Issue

The standard seems simple enough, but what happens when the crime takes place in the sky? Where is venue proper when a crime occurs on an airplane during flight? In applying the Rodriguez-Moreno inquiry to an inflight crime, the first part (nature of the crime) will often be fairly straightforward. However, the second part (location of the commission of the crime) poses more difficulty and presents the legal question at issue.

When an inflight crime is committed, is venue proper in the district over which the airplane was flying when the crime occurred or in the district where the airplane lands after the inflight crime occurred? The answer to this question has serious implications for procedural logistics of prosecuting criminal offenses committed on airplanes as well as concerns of unfairness and undue hardship to criminal defendants accused of committing such crimes.

The Split

Traditionally, courts have deemed venue proper in the district in which the airplane lands, as held by the Eleventh Circuit in United States v. Breitweiser (2004) and the Tenth Circuit in United States v. Cope (2012). In their respective decisions, the Eleventh and Tenth Circuits found venue proper pursuant to 18 U.S.C.S. §3237, specifically §3237(a), in which Congress provided the method for ascertaining venue for crimes involving the use of transportation:  “Any offense involving the use of… transportation in interstate or foreign commerce… is a continuing offense and, except as otherwise expressly provided by enactment of Congress, may be inquired of and prosecuted in any district from, through, or into which such commerce… moves.”

The Eleventh Circuit has explained §3237(a) as “a catchall provision designed to prevent a crime which has been committed in transit from escaping punishment for lack of venue… where venue might be difficult to prove.” United States v. McCulley (1982). In Breitweiser, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed Breitweiser’s convictions for abusive sexual conduct with a minor and simple assault and rejected his challenge to the district court’s finding of venue. The Court reasoned venue was proper in the Northern District of Georgia (where the plane landed) pursuant to the “catchall” provision of §3237(a) because the continuing offenses involved the use of transportation in interstate commerce and, “[I]t would be difficult if not impossible for the government to prove… exactly which federal district was beneath the plane when Breitweiser committed the crimes.” The Court held, “[T]o establish venue, the government need only show that the crime took place on a form of transportation in interstate commerce.”

In Cope, the Tenth Circuit affirmed Cope’s conviction for operating a commercial airplane while under the influence of alcohol and rejected his challenge to venue in the District of Colorado. The Court found venue proper pursuant to §3237(a), citing Breitweiser for the proposition that one “need only show that the crime took place on a form of transportation in interstate commerce.” Since Cope committed the offense while operating the plane in interstate commerce, venue was proper in any district Cope had traveled “from, through, or into,” which included the District of Colorado where the plane landed.

The Ninth Circuit split from the Eleventh and Tenth Circuits on this issue in United States v. Lozoya (2019), in which the defendant was convicted of inflight simple assault in the Central District of California where the plane landed. In reviewing Lozoya’s conviction and her challenge to venue, the Court found the provisions of §3237(a) to be not applicable to establish venue in that district. Specifically, the Court found the statutory language “[continuing] offenses involving… transportation in interstate or foreign commerce” inapplicable after applying the Rodriguez-Moreno inquiry to the offense.

The Ninth Circuit determined that (1) as to the nature of the assault, Lozoya committed a single, instantaneous offense which, though it “occurred on a plane… did not implicate interstate or foreign commerce,” and (2) partly because of its instantaneous nature, the crime was likely committed only in the district over which the plane was flying at the time of the offense. Accordingly, the Court held venue would be proper only in the district over which the plane was flying when the crime occurred and reversed Lozoya’s conviction on the grounds of improper venue. The Court acknowledged (and Judge Owens’ dissent emphasized) “a creeping absurdity” in mandating the exact district over which an inflight offense occurred to be pinpointed for the purpose of ascertaining venue. Further, both the majority and dissent raised concerns about the feasibility and potential absurdity of this requirement and the unfair hardship it could impose on defendants. However, the Court did not find these concerns sufficient to overcome the Constitution and binding precedent. The Court also suggested, and the dissent expressed hope, that if Congress deemed this an absurd result, it would enact a new statute to ascertain venue for crimes committed at 30,000 feet.

Looking Forward

Judge Owens concluded by urging the Supreme Court to rule on this split or Congress to act to restore the rule finding venue where the plane lands. It remains to be seen whether the Supreme Court or Congress will take up this issue. In the meantime, frequent fliers, pay close attention if the captain tells you what you’re flying over. You never know when you’ll need venue.