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Federal Crimes in Airports or Airlines

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If you’re facing a federal charge relating to an airport or airline, you may already know that the intersection of federal, state, and international laws can be complicated.

After the September 11, 2001 attacks, federal and state officials have increased airport security efforts. Officials of the Airport and Transportation Security Administration (TSA) use more advanced technologies to catch those who attempt to sneak forbidden items onto airplanes, such as loaded firearms, knives, explosives, or other weapons.

Most crimes at the airport are prosecuted in state court, but some are prosecuted in federal court.

In this post, we discuss federal airport crimes such as possession of a concealed weapon, disruptive behavior, assault of an airline worker, and drug possession. Other commonly prosecuted airport-related offenses include drug smuggling, shoplifting and theft, and driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs on airport property.

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Concealed Weapons

The TSA reports that Houston airports reported the largest number of firearms checked in carry-ons at airport security checkpoints. In 2014, more than 2200 firearms were identified at checkpoints in about 200 airports. More than 80 percent of these weapons were loaded.

When an individual travels on a commercial airline, he or she must abide by certain laws to avoid facing an unlawful gun possession charge or other criminal offense, including:

  1. The gun or firearm must be unloaded. According to 18 USC 921(a)(3), a firearm is a weapon that’s designed to (or may be converted to) expels bullets or explosives. The traveler seeking to travel with any type for firearm, including a flare gun, starter gun, shotgun, pistol, rifle, or silencer, should follow TSA’s firearms’ policies. Keep in mind that other weapons (not classified by the TSA as firearms, e.g. pellet, BB, or compressed air guns) should be identified according to TSA’s rules.
  2. TSA rules reflect the federal definition of firearm. According to federal regulation 49 CFR 1540.5, a loaded firearm has “a live round of ammunition (or any component thereof), in the cylinder or chamber…inserted in the firearm.” Note that it’s always a good idea to check the laws of the traveler’s home state and destination state regarding firearms possession.
  3. The firearm must be properly secured and placed in a locked case. TSA rules allow the traveler to place the permitted firearm in a metal or plastic hard case that fully secures the firearm from access. The permitted firearm owner must be the only individual to possess the lock combination or key to the case.
  4. The unloaded and secured weapon must be placed in the traveler’s luggage. According to 18 USC 922(3), the traveler is prohibited from tagging or labelling his or her checked baggage to indicate the presence of a firearm within.
  5. Ammunition must also be securely packaged. TSA requires that any ammunition be declared, in addition to the traveler’s firearm(s). Ammunition should be secured in wood, metal, or fiber (cardboard) boxes, or in “other packaging” designed to secure ammunition. Ammunition may be loaded into a securely placed or boxed magazine in the secured firearm container. Each airline may have unique preferences concerning ammunition packaging (and amounts the traveler may store in a checked bag). Contact the airline carrier to request guidance regarding ammunition packaging. Airlines may restrict the traveler’s ability to bring incendiary/explosive projectiles, clips, magazines, or loose ammunition. Travelers may not bring black powder or gunpowder on U.S. commercial flights.
  6. The traveler must also notify the airline that he or she has placed an unloaded, secured firearm in his or her luggage while checking in at the airline counter.

Other weapons, such as knives, destructive, explosive, or hoax devices, are restricted by commercial airlines.

Firearms and Airport Security Checkpoints

It’s illegal for most travelers to carry a firearm through airport security checkpoints unless the carrier is appropriately authorized by federal and state law, e.g. military or law enforcement personnel.

Even if the traveler has a concealed handgun license or permit, the decision to carry a concealed firearm onto an aircraft or through a checkpoint (“sterile location”) is a serious crime.

It’s illegal for the traveler to carry a firearm (either unconcealed or concealed) onto a commercial aircraft or in an airport sterile location [14 CFR § 135.119, 49 C.F.R. § 1540.111, 49 C.F.R. § 1544.201(d)].

Attempting to board, or being on, a commercial aircraft with a concealed firearm carries strict punishments. If convicted, the offender faces up to 10 years in prison and a maximum $250,000 fine.

Texas and other states have passed laws that criminalize the traveler’s carriage of unsecured firearms into a sterile location in an airport. In general, if the traveler is identified with a firearm in the airport screening area (in a carry-on bag or on the traveler’s person), TSA turns the traveler over to law enforcement for arrest under state law.

Attempting to Board a Commercial Aircraft with an Accessible Firearm

Attempting to bring a concealed gun onto an aircraft (when the travel doesn’t have the necessary permits to carry it), or carrying the concealed weapon in the traveler’s property where he or she may easily retrieve it onboard the plane, may result in a felony charge. If convicted, the offender faces severe punishments of 10 years in prison and a maximum $250,000 fine. (49 USC § 46303 says that the offender who tries to board or boards a commercial airline with a concealed firearm is also liable for civil penalties of $10,000/violation. These penalties are routinely imposed regardless of criminal prosecution.)

Similarly, the traveler is prohibited from bringing a firearm, firearm parts (e.g. a receiver or frame), and ammunition in a carry-on bag. The traveler must declare and check these items with the airline.

Declaring Firearms at the Airline Ticket Counter

In general, the traveler must orally declare, or state in writing, that he or she has complied with these rules when checking in at the airline’s ticket counter.

Commercial airline rules vary. An airline may ask the traveler to fill out an unloaded firearm declaration. It’s up to the traveler to inquire about fees or limitations that may apply.

Failure to properly package or declare a firearm can lead to intervention from law enforcement.

Compliance with these rules will prevent the traveler from violating federal and state laws. These laws carry harsh penalties.

Traveling with Firearms and Ammunition

It’s essential for the traveler to inquire each airport’s policies concerning firearms. He or she should also learn states’ laws regarding firearms policies.

Disruptive Behavior

Disruptive behavior by an airline passenger is any sort of behavior that prevents the airline crew from performing their duties, such as 1) verbal threats, 2) assault, 3) physical threats, or 4) intimidation.

Federal law applies disruptive behavior to “closed door” craft incidents in the United States. A closed door aircraft isn’t connected to the ramp walking leading into the airport.

Local jurisdiction applies if the passenger’s disruptive behavior happens when the plane is connected by an open door.

If the disruptive behavior occurs on an international flight, the destination country may prosecute the passenger. In other words, disruptive individuals arriving into our country are potentially subject to U.S. federal law.

Disruptive Behavior Penalties

Offenders convicted of disruptive behavior are subject to severe penalties. The airline has the option to file a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) report about the disruptive incident. The passenger may be subject to both criminal and civil penalties if federal prosecutors pursue charges against him or her.

If convicted, the offender faces fines of up to $10,000 per violation of federal aviation law. He or she faces a minimum 20-year prison sentence if unarmed and up to life in prison if he or she was armed during the incident. He or she may be placed on the “no-fly list.”

Contact The Law Office of Brett Podolsky for help on your case >>

Assault of Airline Workers

Airport travel usually means long waits and frustration to hundreds or thousands of passengers. In the recent past, average wait times and travel delays have increased.

A lapse in judgement at the airport can involve severe consequences. Assaulting an airline worker may be punishable under federal law.

A recent Los Angeles Times article reported a U.S. Department of Justice clarification ruling concerning the protection of law enforcement offices and TSA agents from “air rage.” An individual convicted of assault of these workers faces a maximum 10-year prison sentence and a $250,000 fine.

Drug Crimes

Those who possess or sell drugs may face state and federal prosecution if the drug offense happens in an airport or on a commercial airline flight.

Federal authorities may get involved when investigators discover concealed drugs on a traveler’s person or in their bags. They will certainly become involved if the traveler is suspected of drug trafficking or smuggling.

Although the legalization/decriminalization of marijuana has occurred in some states over the years, not all states have done so.

This fact may result in confusion for some airline passengers:

  • A legal amount of marijuana in the traveler’s home state may be a criminal offense elsewhere.
  • If the traveler uses marijuana for medical purposes, he or she must have a specific license to purchase/possess marijuana.

When possible, the traveler should avoid bringing drugs as well as drug paraphernalia to the airport to avoid any potential federal drug violations.

If the traveler possesses certain controlled or illicit drugs when arriving in Texas, he or she may violate the Texas Controlled Substances Act. The individual in possession of a controlled drug must have a “valid order or prescription” written by a physician for medical purposes.

Texas has marijuana-specific laws. If convicted of marijuana possession in Texas, the offender faces a minimum Class B misdemeanor (maximum 180-day jail sentence and/or up to $10,000 in fines) up to first-degree felony charges (maximum 99-year prison sentence and/or a $50,000 fine).

Texas drug possession penalties are some of the harshest in the nation. Prosecutors consider 1) the type of drug, 2) drug quantity, 3) how the offender concealed/stored the drug, 4) drug paraphernalia, e.g. large amounts of cash or a scale, and 5) the offender’s past convictions.

If convicted, the offender faces a minimum Class B or Class A misdemeanor (a maximum one-year jail sentence and/or $4,000 in fines) up to 99 years in prison and a maximum $250,000 fine.

Consult an Experienced Federal Airport Crimes Attorney

Many offenses that occur in airports often result in federal and state violations. If you’re facing federal criminal charges, it’s urgent that you engage an experienced and strong federal crimes attorney.

The Law Office of Brett A. Podolsky handles cases related to federal crimes in Houston and throughout Texas. Contact the Law Office of Brett A. Podolsky in Houston to schedule an initial case evaluation now at 713-227-0087.

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