Why A Plane Isn’t A Vehicle

The shoe-bomber judge explains it all to you.

To the many reasons to be grateful never to have attended law school, Chatterbox will now add another: He doesn’t waste any time doubting that an airplane is a “vehicle.” The same can’t be said of U.S. District Judge William Young, who on June 11 dropped one of nine charges in the indictment against the alleged shoe bomber Richard Reid—”attempted wrecking of a mass transportation vehicle”—on the grounds that an airplane, though clearly involved in “mass transportation,” is not a “vehicle.” When Chatterbox read this in an Associated Press story, he felt sure the reporter had gotten something wrong. Now that Chatterbox has read the judge’s Memorandum and Order, he sees that the reporter got it right.

Richard Reid’s chances of acquittal aren’t greatly improved by the dropping of the “mass transportation vehicle” count. He’s still accused of “attempted use of weapon of mass destruction,” “attempted homicide,” “placing explosive device on aircraft,” “attempted murder,” “interference with flight crew and attendants,” “attempted destruction of aircraft,” and “using a destructive device during and in relation to a crime of violence.” There’s an excellent chance the U.S. attorney in Boston will put Reid away on at least one of these. Still, Judge Young’s ruling is irksome because it suggests that the USA Patriot Act, which Congress passed in response to Sept. 11, is already showing a serious defect.

The USA Patriot Act may indeed contain serious defects (Chatterbox hasn’t made a comprehensive study), but its definition of “mass transportation vehicle” is not one of them. The actdoesn’t define “mass transportation vehicle” at all. Some legal scholars might consider this negligent. Chatterbox thinks it demonstrates a commonsensical belief that society has a pretty clear grasp of what constitutes a “mass transportation vehicle.” What the USA Patriot Act does spell out is that anyone who “wrecks, derails, sets fire to, or disables a mass transportation vehicle or ferry” (“ferry” is superfluous, being a mass transportation vehicle itself), or who “attempts, threatens, or conspires” to do so, will be sent to jail “for a term of years or for life” if there are any passengers on board. (If there aren’t any passengers on board you get a fine and/or up to 20 years.)

Conceivably there might be cases where the application of this language to any particular alleged crime might create ambiguity. Richard Reid’s case is not one of them. Chatterbox will spare you Judge Young’s disquisition on why the “mass transportation” part of the bill’s language passes muster and proceed to Young’s explanation of why “vehicle” did not. Young bases his argument on the Dictionary Act of the U.S. Code, which defines vehicle as follows:

The word ”vehicle” includes every description of carriage or other artificial contrivance used, or capable of being used, as a means of transportation on land[italics Chatterbox’s].

The word “carriage” is the tip-off that this definition predates Wilbur and Orville Wright’s fateful flight at Kitty Hawk. Judge Young notes that the Dictionary Act’s creaky definition of “vehicle” was invoked in McBoyle v. United States, a Supreme Court decision that addressed the question of whether someone who stole an airplane had violated a law prohibiting theft of any “self-propelled vehicle not designed for running on rails.” But McBoyle v. United States was handed down in 1931, when air travel was in its infancy. The decision was written by Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., a Civil War veteran who was then 90 years old. To Holmes, railroadswere a newfangled form of mass transportation!

The most laughable part of Judge Young’s argument comes when he claims that the USA Patriot Act’s legislative history supports the idea that it was not intended to apply to airplanes. His citation is a speech made by Sen. Pat Leahy, one of the bill’s sponsors, complaining that there was no federal law to prosecute a deranged bus passenger who the week before had slit a Greyhound bus driver’s throat in Tennessee, killing six people. The Patriot Act, Leahy said, would “fill this gap.” From this, Young extrapolates that the Patriot Act

was intended not to provide additional punishment for destruction or attempted destruction of aircraft, but rather to ensure that other modes of transportation, vulnerable to terrorist attack but believed to be outside the reach of federal criminal laws, come within the reach of those laws.

If memory serves, however, the historical event that impelled Congress to pass the USA Patriot Act in the first place was the toppling of the World Trade Center by two hijacked airplanes.