Ive a bomb in my suitcase, funny eh?
One of the more frustrating experiences in our ever more complex world can be taking a commercial airline flight. What used to be a relatively simple and pleasant event is now post 911 a lesson in patience. First, in a large airport you cant park anywhere near the curb. Reno is an ease, but try San Francisco or LA. Then stand in line to check bags and head for the next long line for screening. Sorry maam, youll have to step over here while we check that bag and wand you. (With my new knee, Ill be wanded every time.) At that point, youre frustrated, about to miss your flight, and tempted to mumble something like, Do you really think I have a bomb in there? A harmless bomb joke never hurt anyone right? Ask Barbara Levin.
As part of a planned scuba diving trip, Barbara Levin was flying from LAX to Vancouver, British Columbia. Levin left home about 2-and-a-half hours before her scheduled flight, but was caught up in traffic, spent over an hour locating a parking place, took forever to walk to the shuttle, 20 minutes for the shuttle to arrive, and the shuttle took 10 minutes to travel to the United terminal at LAX.Levin exited the shuttle at Terminal 8, but discovered her flight was departing from Terminal 7, so she walked as fast as she could, only to come up on a long line at the ticket counter. She walked to the front of the line. Given her late arrival, the ticket agent suggested she take her bags to the gate. Levin took her bags to the gate, but her bulky dive bag would not fit through the screening template at the x-ray machine. She went back to the ticket counter. No time left, so she returned to the screening area. At that point she tried something novel. She walked her three bags up to the metal detector and asked for a manual search, adding impatiently, Look, no bomb. No gun. No knife. I am going to the gate.With that, Levin inexplicably left her dive bag and her purse, ignoring security and proceeded to the gate. She was too late. She missed her flight. She returned to the screening area resigned to catch the next flight. Security was waiting for her.
I will spare you the details, but in the next half hour as security personnel grilled her, Levin managed facetiously to refer to a bomb in her bags several more times to an assortment of United personnel, security officers and airport police. It got so bad that at one point when an officer asked, Did you really say you had a bomb? She answered, Yes. I said I have a bomb.Eventually Levin was handcuffed, taken to a detention cell where she was strip-searched and finally released late that night. She was arrested for making a false bomb report, although she was never formally charged with a crime.
Levin sued United and the personnel involved, as well the City of Los Angeles, for false imprisonment. If she was guilty of making a false bomb report, her case would be dismissed. If on the other hand she was improperly arrested no probable cause she could make a case for false imprisonment, perhaps getting enough money for scuba diving vacations (or anger or time management classes). The California Penal Code for making bomb reports at airports is straight forward and hard to get around: Any person who reports to any police officer, employee of an airline or employee of an airport, that a bomb has been placed in any public or private place, knowing that such report is false, is in violation of the Penal Code, which is punishable as a felony. Amazingly Levin, a former Illinois prosecutor representing herself, worked every legal angle on that code, including the airport personnel knew she was being facetious or sarcastic. Everyone knew there were no bombs in her bags. As proof, she pointed out they left the bags at the screening area for hours. Levin disputed she ever reported to anyone there was a bomb in her bag. The Court of Appeal analogized making a false report of a bomb to the false cry of fire in a crowded theater the classic example of unprotected speech provided by Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes, Jr.
You know how the Court ruled. It doesnt matter whether Levins comments about a bomb were sarcastic or made in frustration or that they were not intended to be taken seriously, she uttered the words and knew her ill-advised comments about a bomb were false. Neither the police nor airport personnel should be put in a position to have to speculate whether a person making reference to a bomb intends to be taken seriously or as a joke.
I think you know. Jim Porter is an attorney with Porter andamp; Simon, with offices in Truckee, South Lake Tahoe and Reno. He may be reached at email@example.com.
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