According to Houston’s KPRC Channel 2, or Click2Houston, a Houston area teen has reported being molested on a United Airlines flight from Houston to Sacramento, California.
The girl, 13, from Dayton in Liberty County, had taken a United flight from Houston to Sacramento when the molestation allegedly occurred. She was traveling without an adult, her mother having paid a $300 unaccompanied minor fee.
United’s website lists elaborate processes for parents and the airline to contribute to a safe flight for unaccompanied minors, who are given a special wristband. The airline says it chooses their seat assignment and has flight attendants check on children throughout the flight.
In this case, it was an evening flight. The girl’s mother said her daughter was traveling with a friend, who was in the window seat, with her daughter in the middle seat and a male passenger in the aisle seat.
The mother said her daughter had nodded off with a blanket over her lap when the man put his hand under the blanket and began grabbing her crotch. She pushed him away, screamed and pressed an emergency button.
The United crew then moved the girl away and notified law enforcement on the ground immediately, which is procedural. The FBI then took custody of the man after the flight landed in Sacramento.
The FBI later released the man, who denied that he’d touched the girl. The FBI instructed the man to remain in the state (he’d entered the United States on a work visa) while its investigation continued. During that time, he will not be allowed on any United flights.
Federal or state sex crime laws can apply
For crimes on domestic flights, federal—not state—laws apply. As for the jurisdiction for legal processes, that is normally in the state where the aircraft is registered.
Ordinarily, federal laws on child sexual abuse aren’t applied if the crime occurs within a state. In such cases, state or local authorities can prosecute the crime under that state’s sex crime laws. But if the sexual abuse of a child happened on federal lands—or on a flight between states—the offense can be prosecuted under federal law.
Since a crime committed onboard an aircraft departing from a domestic site is a federal offense, it’s the FBI that investigates. In fact, the FBI has had a unique reporting code for sexual assaults on airplanes since 2019.
Persons who are prosecuted for violating federal laws on child molestation can face high fines and years in prison, as well as having to register as a sex offender, especially when the crime has an aggravated nature.
Also, the federal crime of child molestation has no statute of limitations, which means a charge could be brought any number of years after the alleged assault. Keep in mind that there are many instances when reports of child molestation are false, such as when one parent uses that claim as leverage in a child custody case.
Sexual assaults on aircraft are increasing
KPRC said data from the FBI showed there were 63 in-flight sexual assault investigations in 2017, rising almost two-fold to 119 in-flight sexual assault investigations in 2019.
The Houston FBI has a task force that investigates about 15 to 20 cases per week of unruly passenger complaints at Hobby, Bush-Intercontinental and Ellington airports. James Smith, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Houston office, said “a good portion” of the complaints involve drugs or alcohol.
Smith also told KPRC that “it’s very easy for a predator to touch someone” on an aircraft, where seating can be very tight. He suggests having an unaccompanied child sit in an aisle seat and thus be more visible to other passengers and flight attendants.
Texas sex crime laws and punishments are harsh
Even for first-time offenders, Texas sex crime laws, like federal sex crime laws, can involve harsh punishments, especially when a child is involved in an alleged offense.
Under Texas law, you could spend years in prison and face a $10,000 fine if convicted of such felony crimes as:
- Sexual assault of a child
- Aggravated sex assault of a child
- Indecency with a child by contact
- Indecency with a child by exposure
- Continuous sexual abuse of a child
Aggravated sexual assault of a child under 14 years of age is a particularly severe crime. It’s a first-degree felony whose punishments can include from 5 years to life in prison and a $10,000 fine.
If the child was under 6 years old at the time of the alleged sexual assault, the criminal charge becomes a super aggravated sexual assault of a child, whose punishments can include a minimum of 25 years to a maximum of 99 years, or life, in prison, with no chance of parole.
Get an experienced sex crime defense lawyer
If you or a family member has been unfairly accused of child molestation or sexual assault onboard an aircraft, or anywhere else, you must get an experienced sex crime defense lawyer to protect your legal rights. The stakes are too high not to do so.
For persons living in Houston, The Woodlands, Conroe, Kingwood, Katy, Sugar Land or elsewhere in Harris County, Montgomery County or Fort Bend County, the award-winning Neal Davis Law Firm stands ready to fight for your legal rights as a criminal defendant.
Contact us today to secure a private consultation for your case.