Mile High Couple Cited Under PATRIOT Act

A couple trying to join the Mile High Club has insteadrun afoul of the PATRIOT Act.

A couple’s ill-concealed sexual play aboard a Southwest Airlines flight from Los Angeles got them charged with violating the Patriot Act, intended for terrorist acts, and could land them in jail for 20 years.

According to their indictment, Carl Persing and Dawn Sewell were allegedly snuggling and kissing inappropriately, “making other passengers uncomfortable,” when a flight attendant asked them to stop. “Persing was observed nuzzling or kissing Sewell on the neck, and … with his face pressed against Sewell’s vaginal area. During these actions, Sewell was observed smiling,” reads the indictment filed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. On a second warning from the flight attendant, Persing snapped back threatening the flight attendant with “serious consequences” if he did not leave them alone.

The comment was enough to have the couple, both in their early 40s, arrested when the plane reached its destination in Raleigh, North Carolina, and charged with obstructing a flight attendant and with criminal association. They have been placed under legal surveillance until their trial on February 5. If found guilty, they both could be sent to jail for up to 20 years.

Persing’s lawyer William Peregoy said his client was not feeling well when he placed his head on his companion’s lap, and that he only threatened the flight attendant with reporting him to his superiors on landing.

Let’s stipulate that the seats of a commercial airliner filled with other passengers is an inappropriate venue for sexual exploration. Can we nonetheless agree that this is not what the PATRIOT Act was aimed at?

Laws which radically depart from the norms of the Bill of Rights in order to go after particularly heinous criminals who are good at evading the law will inevitably be abused and applied to those who are not even remotely associated with the original intent of the law. We use RICO to go after anti-abortion protesters at clinics and PATRIOT to go after those who tamper with the smoke detectors in airplane restrooms. If it weren’t so serious it would be absurd.

Because flight attendants theoretically have extraordinary responsibility during certain emergencies, we have anointed them with extraordinary status in response to the 9/11 attacks. The problem with that is that, on 99.99% of all flights, they are essentially cocktail waitresses. They bring passengers pillows, snacks, and collect our garbage. Let us not transform them into Texas Rangers.

FILED UNDER: Law and the Courts,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Anderson says:

    Persing snapped back threatening the flight attendant with “serious consequences” if he did not leave them alone.

    I think it’s pretty clear that the vaginal-area nuzzling wasn’t the issue here.

  2. Rodney Dill says:

    Still its probably overkill to employ the PATRIOT Act.

    What’s sad is that if there isn’t another applicable law to cover the situation with adequate teeth to deter such behavior, that the government bureaucracy (on both sides) would probably be prohibitive to establishing an effective legal mechanism. Especially without attaching it to pork or someone elses agenda item. This is the real culprit why existing laws are stretched to cover unintended situations.

  3. MikeT says:

    Like no one saw this coming. What kind of mental midget do you have to be to not realize that in the legal system, a law like the USA PATRIOT Act applies universally unless it is scoped to a narrow subset of investigations?

  4. Mark says:

    Well, if anything, in a few months Mr. Persing might have his head in the laps of some other people…

  5. Steven Plunk says:

    Whoa now. This person acted like an idiot, refused to obey the flight attendant, and then threatened the flight attendant. There are laws that apply to people on airplanes that we would not see in other places because of the special nature of air travel and the inability to call a policeman to respond at 35,000 feet.

    I doubt any jail time is coming up but severe consequences are in order. Try mouthing off to a police officer in the same manner and you could expect a quick rough and cuff experience.

    The fact that this particular law is in the Patriot act is immaterial. I don’t think playing it up as being charged under the Patriot act is anything other than attacking the Patriot act itself. The person was charged under federal law plain and simple.

    I don’t see this as departing from the bill of rights either. The airplane is private property and the owner has a right to demand normal civil behavior. You can’t throw the scofflaws off the plane like you could throw them out of your office so laws are put into place to protect the owner and the public at large.

    This is a very rare occurrence but certainly charges are justified.

  6. Billy says:

    “Charges are justified” on the uncorroborated accusations of a glorified cocktail waitress? Thankfully that’s for a judge (or a grand jury) to decide.

    James is absolutely right – this is the natural consequence of sweepingly overbroad authority enacted without oversight, accountability, or even more than a few moments of knee-jerk reactive thought that anything less allows the terrorists to win. Rather, this IS the terrorists winning: we have ceded unprecedented powers to civilians to effectively convict with a mere accusation, more evidence that rather than grow a spine, we’ve succumbed to such a blinding fear of terrorist violence that we are willing to entrust our lives and rights to anyone, ANYONE, who we think -might- be able to make them a little bit safer. And by “we,” I mean the worst Congress in history.

    The right implicated here, if anyone is still paying attention, is “freedom of speech.” I put it in quotes because it’s fast becoming anything but. And for those of you who are going to use the overly simplistic and barely analogous “fire in a crowded movie theatre” example of the behavior here, it does not apply. No one was threatened, and the safety of the passengers and crew was never in question in this instance. Rather, this is a prime example of the worst kind of paternalism – that you no longer have the right to be rude, and that anything that might offend another human being can be punished by 20 years in jail.

    And for the record, you have a RIGHT to be rude to a police officer. If they physically abuse you as a result, that is at least a civil offense, and could be a criminal act. I’m not saying it’s wise, and you’re most likely never going to recover from any suit. The point is that this is still America, and this country was founded on the principle that we have a right to act like jerks if we want to. The second that the government tries to take that away from us in the name of (what was it again?) the terrorists really have won.

  7. JKB says:

    The criminal association seems like a reach but long before the Patriot Act, if you acted up on a flight you were likely met by the boys in blue. I’ve seen quite a few drunks learn this little truth. So they rolled the existing law into the Patriot Act, not a problem unless 20 years is mandatory. If the judge has the discretion to impose a fine for jerks as was done in the past, I see no issue.

    In the past, the flight attendant may have ignored the threat given the situation, but after 9/11 I’m sure she’d be fired if she didn’t report any and all threats. Why should she lose her job because two 40 year old’s who don’t know how to act in public and believe intimidation is how they get their way.

  8. legion says:

    Yeah, I was on the couple’s side right up until the ‘consequences’ remark. That alone will probably sustain any charges filed against them.

    But you people are missing the point of the idiocy here. It’s not that they were doin’ the nasty. It’s not that they were being offensive in (sorta) public. It’s not that they ignored the directions of the attendant, and it’s not even that the idiot threatened her for interrupting.

    The stupid here is that they’re being charged under TERRORISM laws.

    That means, in case you’ve forgotten, that even if they’re not convicted, they’ll never be able to fly unmolested again. Maybe not even allowed on planes at all, considering how screwed up the ‘no-fly’ list is. Is this _really_ what the Patriot Act is supposed to accomplish?

  9. frank says:

    Seems plausible that the threat was non violent in nature, after all how many times have we asked to speak to a supervisor when we are not pleased with service or employee attitude. Obviously, most of the times the servants have no recourse and have to swallow their pride and get their boss.
    In this case, the accused used, perhaps, inappropriate language to make his “request”. Taking advantage of both his mistake and the absurdities of our times, this servant used his words as ammunition for her defense and counterattack. Indeed, this case should be thrown out. The BS this guy is getting should be enough penalty for his poor choice of words.
    To Mr. Plunk, I sincerely hope you don’t believe the comments that you write. They are an embarrassment to our nation, to the police, and should be to yourself. Most policemen are professionals, and would certainly study a situation before “ruff and cuff”, and to compare an air waitress to a police man is short sighted.

  10. Anderson says:

    That means, in case you’ve forgotten, that even if they’re not convicted, they’ll never be able to fly unmolested again.

    It seems like the lady was having trouble flying unmolested in the 1st place.

  11. Boyd says:

    rim-shot for Anderson

    Good one, dude!

  12. Steven Plunk says:

    Charges are brought by prosecutors and then the judge and jury get the case. The appropriate legal process has been followed. Any citizen has a right to object to inappropriate behavior, this glorified cocktail waitress is also responsible for the safety of the passengers and with that responsibility comes the power to maintain order in the cabin.

    They are not being charged as terrorists. They are being charged with specific crimes that happen to be included in the Patriot act. Airline safety and Airport security measures were included in the act but to say these people are being charged as terrorists is silly. It’s also silly to equate this with freedom of speech, they didn’t follow the instructions of the flight attendant and created their own trouble. I see no constitutional right to be a jerk when it is contrary to the law which in this case it was.

    I have no idea if they will ever be able to fly “unmolested” again. I would think that is not the case. However, perhaps they should not fly until they grow up at least.

  13. Jaibones says:

    Terrorism, my ass. This is nothing that a $50,000 fine won’t cure. They need to quit screaming Wolf! and leave the Patriot Act (and RICO, etc.) for their intended purposes.

    Having sex on a commercial air flight was never a good idea, even before the Patriot Act. Deal with it.

  14. Steven Plunk says:

    A quick update. According to Orin Kerr at the Volokh Conspiracy Blog the charges are being brought under any portion of the Patriot act.

    We now know clearly that this is not anti-terrorism legislation gone haywire.

  15. just me says:

    I might have more empathy for the couple, if there wasn’t the threat, but I don’t care what law the charges are being brought under, threatening a flight attendent shouldn’t be a consequence free speech.

    Should they go to jail for 20 years? Nope, not even sure if i this case jail is warranted, but I don’t think threats should go unpunished either.

    I am not sure that I care much what legislation the charges are being brought under, if there is a law that says it is illegal to threaten a flight attendant, then you don’t threaten flight attendants. I wonder if the threats about bombs in the airport security line are also now under the Patriot act-although that law has been around far longer than 9-11, I have a feeling they probably are.

  16. Steven Plunk says:

    I should have said are NOT being brought under the Patriot act. Sorry.

  17. Anderson says:

    Kerr link.

    Now, if they want to make it a terrorist act to bray into one’s cell phone in public, I might be better disposed to the PATRIOT Act.

  18. Anderson says:

    I forgot to comment on my 100% agreement with Mr. Plunk in this thread, which I hope inaugurates a new era of peace and understanding. Just so long as Rumsfeld doesn’t do any vaginal nuzzling mid-flight.

  19. legion says:

    I’m with you & Steven, anderson – given that they’re not apparently being treated as terrorists, I no longer have any issue at all with how this went.

    That Rumsfeld image tho – EWWW! I need brain cleaner now…

  20. andrea says:

    Well, from what I’ve read ALL over the internet, I am now completely scared to have my little girl sleep in her Mama’s lap due to the fact I might be charged with child abuse if I, god forbid, “Smile”. Give me a break!!!
    To the passengers that complained…. GET over your little selves, read your book, watch the movie or just ignore the couple sleeping on eachother in the next row…..Oh wait the woman accused was smiling so I guess that is grounds for a major complaint! NOT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! GET A LIFE people.

  21. Dawn Sewell says:

    Just to point out at how opinions can be reached without all of the information: The flight attendant (or glorified cocktail waitress as some of you are saying) is not a “she” FA1 is a “he”. There are a lot of allegations being made, most untrue. The truth will come out in court. My attorneys have advised me not to talk about it until then, but just remember, things are not always what they seem. And Andrea, I share your concern. If someone can be kicked off a plane for praying or breast feeding, you never know what could happen next.

  22. Darla Nash says: