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At least 200 passengers have been convicted of felonies under the Patriot Act, often for behavior involving raised voices and profanity. Some experts say airlines are misusing the law. LA Times
She spanked each of them on the thigh with three swats. It was a small incident, but one that in the heightened anxiety after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks would eventually have enormous ramifications for Freeman and her children.
A flight attendant confronted Freeman, who responded by hurling a few profanities and throwing what remained of a can of tomato juice on the floor.
The confrontation on the Frontier Airlines flight to Denver was particularly harsh, recalled Amy Fleming, the flight attendant who told Freeman to stop spanking her children. In a recent interview, Fleming called Freeman the most unruly passenger she had seen in 11 years on the job.
"Absolutely she deserved a felony conviction," she said.
But at least one passenger, John Carlson, a defense attorney who was seated near Freeman, said there was no threat. "There was a nasty, loud exchange," Carlson said. Then Freeman "capitulated and offered no resistance. My sympathy shifted to her."
After three months in jail, Freeman agreed to plead guilty in exchange for being released on probation. A court-appointed attorney told her that a plea deal would be the fastest way to see her children, who had been taken back to Hawaii and put into foster care.
Her probation required her to stay in Oklahoma City, where she grew up, and prohibited her from flying. Meanwhile, legal proceedings in Hawaii have begun to allow the children's foster parents to adopt them.
Freeman has been denied permission to attend custody hearings in Maui over the last six months, court records show.
"I have cried. I have cried for my children every day," Freeman said. "I feel the system is failing me."
Last summer, a Boston man who took off his clothes and attempted to open an emergency exit during a flight to Los Angeles was not charged with a crime, even though the plane was forced to make an unscheduled landing in Oklahoma City.
Such was not the case with Carl Persing and Dawn Sewell, a Lakewood couple who never left their seats during the 2006 incident aboard a Southwest flight to Raleigh, N.C., that led to their arrests and four days in jail.
FBI and local investigators in Raleigh alleged that the couple engaged in a variety of sexual activities during the flight. At one point, according to an FBI affidavit, Persing was "observed with his face pressed against Sewell's vaginal area. During these actions, Sewell was observed smiling."
A flight attendant twice asked them to stop, according to the affidavit, and Persing responded, "Get out of my face," and later, "You and I are going to have a serious confrontation when we get off this plane."
But he denied making a threat. He said he did not feel well because of a chemotherapy drug and had put his head in Sewell's lap. "We were kind of confused why he was waking us up, why he wouldn't let me sleep," he said in a recent interview.
Charges were dropped against Sewell, but Persing, who had never been arrested before, was sentenced to 12 months' probation.
Tolerance for irrational behavior linked to mental illness has also diminished, said Ronald Honberg, legal director for the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
In a number of cases, mentally ill passengers act bizarre, falsely claiming to have heart attacks, seeing terrorists or needing to escape the plane. In other cases, including one earlier this month in Los Angeles, they use the word "bomb" or claim to have a bomb. They are typically restrained, but whether they are prosecuted depends on the widely varying judgment of prosecutors around the country.
"If you get out of your seat and walk to the front of a plane and talk about bombs, you get what you deserve," said Sales, the law professor.
On the other hand, Sales adds, "There are other sanctions than throwing the book at a person who has mental health issues."