Friday, March 6, 2009

Airline meal dispute resolves assault/battery quandary

I'll bet you didn't know that any acts of violence on an airplane can land you in federal court on criminal charges. Consider yourself on notice that hitting a flight attendant violates the law against assault.

The case is United States v. Delis, decided on March 5. Delis was angry when the flight attendant told him they ran out of chicken and he would have to settle for beef. Most people would eat the steak. Not Delis. According to the opinion, he began shouting at the attendant, and then he struck her. Here's a ringside account of what happened at 30,000 feet over the Atlantic Ocean (the flight was from Switzerland to Idlewild Airport, now known as Kennedy Airport):

Williams-Beauvil [the flight attendant) testified that Delis shouted obscenities and then struck her. She indicated that the blow landed “just under her left breast.” After being struck, she instinctively grabbed Delis’s chin and he then pushed her hand away. Nestor Quecuty, another flight attendant, testified that he approached the pair when he heard screaming and that, at the time he arrived, Williams-Beauvil and Delis were arguing about whether Delis had called Williams-Beauvil an offensive epithet. From the aisle behind Delis’s seat, Quecuty observed Williams-Beauvil place her finger about ten inches from Delis’s face. Quecuty then saw Delis, “with his right arm and [an] open hand, [take] a swing at” Williams-Beauvil, making contact with her arm. Yet another witness, a passenger, testified that he observed Delis object when he learned that Williams-Beauvil had no more chicken. An argument ensued and grew louder. The passenger eventually observed Delis “push[] [Williams-Beauvil] backwards.”

Delis did not dispute that he had an argument with Williams-Beauvil about the in-flight meal choice. Rather, he claimed that Williams-Beauvil pointed her finger at him and that he simply pushed her hand away from his face. Immediately thereafter, he was restrained by another member of the flight crew. Delis further asserted that he remained calm throughout the remainder of the flight.

A magistrate judge found Delis guilty of assault as prohibited under the U.S. Code. The issue here is whether Delis could violate the assault law when he did not intend to injure the flight attendant. This is where the opinion gets boring, at least for most people. Not me. I am impressed the level of legal scholarship in this opinion for a case in which the punishment was time served and a 10 dollar fine. The opinion is a tour de force of statutory analysis, as the Court of Appeals parses the federal laws governing assault and battery in the context of their legislative history and highly regarded treatises in criminal law, including Blackstone's famous legal commentaries which are several centuries old but regularly cited in court rulings today.

Assault and battery are often used interchangeably, but they have subtle distinctions. We generally understand assault to cover the apprehension of an offensive touching. In other words, if you see someone coming at you with a knife, that's assault. The attack is the battery, the offensive touching. A battery does not require an intent to injure, however, so that reckless offensive contact can also constitute a battery. Putting the pieces of this puzzle together, the end result for the Court of Appeals is that assault under federal law does not require an intent to injure. As the Court summarizes the holding, " Because we conclude that “simple assault,” as used in 17 U.S.C. § 113(a)(5), incorporates both of the common-law crimes of assault and battery, we hold that an offensive touching does constitute simple assault regardless whether the perpetrator possessed any specific intent to injure." What it means for Delis is that even if he did not intend to hurt the flight attendant, he committed an assault in making contact with her over his outrage at not receiving chicken.

This case reminds me that unusual facts make for some of the most interesting but important cases. Again, the statutory analysis here is exquisite. It just happened to be this strange case that prompted the Court of Appeals to sort through this legal issue which will certainly arise again someday in a different context. A good example of the unusual circumstances in which these issues often arise can be found in the precedents the Second Circuits cites in support of its holding: United States v. Lewellyn, 481 F.3d 695, 697-99 (9th Cir. 2007) (concluding that simple assault includes spitting on another); United States v. Whitefeather, 275 F.3d 741, 742-43 (8th Cir. 2002) (holding that simple assault includes urinating on another).

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