Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Monday ordered federal prosecutors to focus on airline crimes, echoing President Trump’s call for prosecutors to use special measures to pursue airline passengers involved in alleged crimes on flights.
“Everyone in the United States deserves to leave their home and work without fear of violence or threat of harm — and that includes airline passengers,” Sessions said in a statement. “That’s why we are ordering prosecutors across the country to devote all necessary resources to this threat, investigate the case as vigorously as possible, and prosecute the defendant to the fullest extent of the law.”
The order, which is effective immediately, directs federal prosecutors and law enforcement officials to focus on plane-crime cases that are the result of an act of domestic terrorism, mass violence and robbery. At the same time, it bans prosecutors from taking into account a possible terrorism or mass-violence connection.
“Effective immediately, all actions against Americans that involve domestic violence, criminal threats, acts of terrorism, or armed robbery must be taken with this priority in mind,” the memorandum said.
Sessions said Congress should take additional steps to combat crime on flights, including by considering raising the penalties for passengers using incendiary devices on planes. And he called on Congress to approve a list of “government airline incident victims” that would be protected under federal civil rights laws.
The Justice Department said investigators have already begun working to identify specific cases of alleged violence and to meet deadlines to have those cases referred to the Justice Department’s Criminal Division for prosecution.
Two weeks ago, Trump ordered the Justice Department to identify any instances of airline passengers being unfairly targeted for arrests or prosecution.
“We should not give airline passengers additional reason to flee from their aircraft,” Trump said in a statement at the time. “Passengers who flee from their aircraft without permission put fellow passengers and crew in danger.”
Trump’s remarks were meant to refer to what he called a dangerous and unacceptable practice by FBI agents during the Obama administration to target innocent passengers whose behavior they deemed suspicious.
The flights that have been under scrutiny include those departing from or arriving at Logan International Airport in Boston. Agents at Logan had confiscated electronic devices, considered possible weapons, or even a bomb after feeling that the passengers appeared to be acting suspiciously.
The Obama administration had instructed the FBI to refrain from conducting those searches. In some cases, passengers were let go when FBI agents decided that they were just nervous or acted like that all the time. But other instances were checked for explosives or other potentially dangerous devices after alerting airlines they were suspicious or asking airlines to look in their lost and found folder.
Trump said after the hijacking of a Yemen-bound flight last month that he was frustrated by the reporting on the incident, which indicated that the alleged hijacker and his other crew members were passengers who passed through security before the hijacking.
“We need to be looking for bad things,” Trump said at the time. “Bad things are going to happen.”
Trump said he had instructed the attorney general to send him a list of “government airline incident victims.”