This is a story about alleged criminal passenger behavior on a Southwest Airlines flight. But it's also about some really, really bad timing. 

Because after what President Trump did on Oct. 5, the law is beginning to catch up with airline passengers who harass flight attendants and even assault other passengers. 

Here's what happened, along with the criminal case, and why this kind of incident could suddenly have worse results for the passenger than it might have even a few weeks ago. 

'Don't [expletive] with me'

Here's the scene: Southwest Airlines flight 859 from Los Angeles to Dallas.

A middle seat passenger, Justin Riley Brafford, 29, of Denton, Texas allegedly started touching and bothering the female passenger in the aisle seat next to him, even before takeoff.

It started with him putting his hand on her leg, according to court documents. She pulled back, and Brafford then tried to to "play footsies" with her. When she asked him to stop, he allegedly pulled on her clothing, asked personal and inappropriate questions, and insisted that she should go out with him.

Then, he allegedly leaned in and whispered: "Don't [expletive] with me."

The woman passenger asked a flight attendant to help her find another seat. (The flight attendant later said Brafford was sitting so close to her that he assumed they were traveling together.)

But Brafford allegedly followed her to the new seat to confront her. And when the flight attendant spoke to him, he allegedly started yelling and swearing. He didn't seem "like a normal person" and went "from zero to sixty in nano-seconds," the complaint says.

The flight was diverted to Albuquerque. Brafford was arrested. He's charged in federal court with interfering with and intimidating members of a flight crew and flight attendants while on an aircraft, and simple assault. 

All too common

It's truly shocking how often this kind of thing apparently happens to passengers, particularly women, on commercial airplanes.

The FBI says reports of sexual assault against passengers are increasing, but it's also clear that there are far more instances of assault and harassment that are never reported.

Recently, I reported that two-thirds of flight attendants say they've been sexually harassed at work, including 20 percent in the last year alone--but that very few report it.

Victims understandably are concerned that they won't believed. Or they may simply want to get away from the situation and not think about it more than they have to.

The kind of excuse Brafford allegedly gave police on the ground illustrates why. He said he had thought the woman was flirting with him, and that might have "misread the situation," according to reports.

Of course, he also allegedly said that God was talking to him on the plane, that he'd used methamphetamine a day before the flight, and that he'd overdosed on heroin and recovered a few days before.

The brand new law

Technically, the crimes Brafford is charged with could carry a total of 21 years in prison and a $350,000 fine. But let's be honest, even if he were convicted, he'd never do that kind of time.

Recently, another Southwest passenger admitted threatening to put a flight attendant "in a body bag" and reportedly had to be subdued by police with a stun gun on the ground.

And that's why the new law President Trump just signed is pretty apt.

Among the many things it changed: It added additional civil penalties for sexual assault of a fellow passenger--and increased the maximum allowable civil fine to $35,000. 

Will it apply in this case? We'll have to let the justice system play out to know for sure. But it's a pretty strong sanction.

And if passengers can't simply treat each other with respect as human beings, hopefully it will dissuade at least some of this kind of behavior in the future.

Published on: Oct 20, 2018
Like this column? Sign up to subscribe to email alerts and you'll never miss a post.
The opinions expressed here by columnists are their own, not those of