Title 18 U.S. Code § 37 - Violence at International Airports
Since federal authorities regulate civilian airports (the FAA), crimes committed at airports fall under federal jurisdiction.
But when someone commits violence or causes life-threatening damage at an international airport, federal law imposes severe penalties.
Under Title 18 U.S. Code 37, if you are convicted of performing an act of violence at an international airport using any "device, substance, or weapon," you could face up to 20 years in federal prison. You could even face life imprisonment if someone dies due to your efforts.
18 U.S.C. 37 says, “A person who unlawfully and intentionally, using any device, substance, or weapon (1) performs an act of violence against a person at an international airport that causes or is likely to cause serious bodily injury (as defined in section 1365 of this title) or death; or (2) destroys or seriously damages the facilities of an international airport or disrupts the services of the airport, if such an act endangers or is likely to endanger safety at that airport, or attempts or conspires to do such an act…will be fined and imprisoned...”
Subsection (b) says there is jurisdiction over the prohibited activity if it occurs in the United States or outside it if the perpetrator is later found in the U.S., or if they are a national as defined in the Immigration and Nationality Act described under 8 U.S.C. 1101(a)(22). Let's review this federal law in more detail below.
The Montreal Convention
Title 18 U.S.C. 37 is the United States' implementation of what is known as the Montreal Convention—or, by its longer name, the Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts against the Safety of Civil Aviation.
This multilateral treaty was written in response to terrorist acts at the airports in Rome and Vienna in 1985. After being ratified by 176 nations, including the United States, it has become the standard international protocol for preventing and punishing violence at international airports worldwide.
The Montreal Convention applies only to civil aviation, not to aviation associated with military or law enforcement.
What Does the Law Say?
Under Title 18 U.S. Code 37, a person is guilty of a federal offense if:
- They willfully and intentionally commit an act of violence against another person on the grounds of an international airport in a manner that causes (or could cause) serious bodily injury; OR
- They willfully and intentionally destroy or cause serious damage to international airport facilities or an out-of-service civil aircraft; AND
- The violence "endangers or is likely to endanger safety at that airport."
There are other things to know about this law discussed below.
In the eyes of the law, attempting or conspiring to commit this crime is treated as if you succeeded.
In other words, if you attempt an act of violence at an international airport but are caught before you can carry it out, you can be tried and convicted as though you succeeded; you will suffer the same penalties if convicted.
You could be charged with and convicted of this crime even if the alleged act occurred outside of the United States.
In 1996, this law was amended to include extraterritorial jurisdiction, which means a person can now be convicted in the United States of committing violence at an international airport outside the U.S. provided that:
- The perpetrator or one of the victims is a U.S. national; and
- The perpetrator was discovered and apprehended on U.S. soil after the incident.
What Are Some Examples?
EXAMPLE 1: Jerold, a U.S. citizen traveling abroad, gets into an argument with an airline employee at an international airport and attacks him with a knife, sending him to the hospital.
Jerold escapes without being arrested and flies home, but airport security captures the act on video and sends the video to U.S. authorities. Although Jerold committed the violence overseas, he can be arrested and charged with a federal crime under 18 U.S.C. 37 because he is a U.S. citizen.
EXAMPLE 2: Abner takes a job working at an airport, but he has other plans in mind. He plants a homemade bomb on an aircraft on the tarmac but fails to detonate it and is arrested.
Although no violence occurred, Abner can be charged under U.S.C. 37 because (a) his actions posed a threat to public safety; and (b) he attempted to commit the crime.
What Are the Related Federal Offenses?
18 U.S. Code Chapter 2 aircraft and motor vehicles have several federal statutes related to 18 U.S.C. 37 violence at international airports, including the following:
- 18 U.S.C. 31 – definitions;
- 18 U.S.C. 32 - destruction of aircraft or aircraft facilities;
- 18 U.S.C. 33 – destruction of motor vehicles or the facilities;
- 18 U.S.C. 34 - penalty when death results;
- 18 U.S.C. 35 - imparting or conveying false information;
- 18 U.S.C. 36 - drive-by shooting;
- 18 U.S.C. 38 - fraud involving aircraft in interstate or foreign commerce;
- 18 U.S.C. 39 - traffic signal preemption transmitters;
- 18 U.S.C. 39A - aiming a laser pointer at an aircraft;
- 18 U.S.C. 39B - unsafe operation of unmanned aircraft;
- 18 U.S.C. 40 - commercial motor vehicles required to stop for inspections;
- 18 U.S.C. 40A - operation of unauthorized unmanned aircraft over wildfires;
- 18 U.S.C. 2331(5) - domestic terrorism.
What Are the Penalties for 18 U.S.C. 37?
Committing violence at an international airport comes with severe penalties. If convicted of this crime, you could face a fine of up to $250,000 and up to 20 years in prison.
If your actions result in someone's death, you could see any number of years up to life imprisonment.
What Are the Defenses for 18 U.S.C. 37?
Being charged with violence at an international airport doesn't automatically mean you will be convicted or go to prison.
An experienced federal criminal defense attorney can implement several defenses that could result in dropped charges or an acquittal. Such defenses are discussed below.
Perhaps we can argue that you had no intent to commit violence. Prosecutors must show that you had the required intent to commit violence at an international airport.
If, for example, you had a device capable of causing harm or damage but didn't intend or attempt to use it, you may have a viable defense to this charge.
Perhaps we can argue that you were not on international airport grounds. If the alleged violence occurred outside the airport's boundaries, you might be brought up on other charges under applicable laws, but you would not be guilty of a federal crime.
Perhaps we can argue that you were acting in self-defense or defense of another person. Many crimes are excusable if they were committed out of necessity, such as to protect yourself or another person from foreseeable harm.