Mimesis Law
21 November 2017

David Patrick Diaz: The Right Fit For Crazy On A Plane

Apr. 8, 2016 (Mimesis Law) — The other passengers on the plane with David Patrick Diaz must have been terrified:

A Poughkeepsie man who forced a United Airlines flight to return to Dulles Airport last year after shouting “jihad” and rushing the cockpit has been sentenced to nine months in prison.

Thirty-six-year-old David Patrick Diaz pleaded guilty to interfering with a flight crew earlier this year. His defense lawyer said Diaz has problems with mental illness and alcohol. It was unclear if he is from the city or town of Poughkeepsie.

On a March 2015 flight from Washington to Denver, Diaz was tackled by passengers after shouting “jihad” and saying there was something in the belly of the plane.

Lucky for them, Diaz was just crazy. A mix of alcohol and mental illness made him do something that surely terrified the other passengers and made for some very tense moments, but he was just nuts.

There was no reason to be afraid at all. Had there been something in the belly of the plane, even a fake bomb or a bomb-like item of some sort, this would’ve been on the front page of every newspaper in the county. Politicians would have held hearings on preventing it from happening again. There’d be commissions and studies and grandstanding. We’d have started a very important but ultimately dead end dialogue about identifying people like Diaz before they strike, enhancing security screening measures to keep even fake bombs out of planes, and super-duper-triple-reinforcing cockpit doors even though Diaz didn’t make it to the door.

But no, none of that happened. Diaz wasn’t right in the head, and he probably had a bit too much to drink. His not-quite-right mental state is obvious from the crime itself. If he really wanted jihad, after all, yelling it first then making a really incompetent go of it seems like a terrible way to accomplish it. He’s just another lunatic, and other passengers stopped his crime right away:

Tellam said two men behind her jumped up and grabbed Diaz, and put him on the ground in the aisle next to her seat, where he remained until the plane circled back.

“They laid on him and he just kept shouting incoherent things like ‘I can make you and your family rich,’ ‘I live next to Apple,’ ‘I live next to Boeing,’ ‘Let me go and let me live and I’ll make our families rich,’ ” she said.

Tellam said the two men who grabbed Diaz acted so quickly and thoroughly — removing his shoes and checking for weapons — that she thought at first they were air marshals.

Diaz only confirmed his craziness, and to a large extent his harmlessness, after people stopped him. From a national security standpoint, there’s nothing much relevant in the story except for perhaps the idea that airline passengers these days are pretty darn serious about stopping anyone from bringing down a plane. If anything, the message is a positive one about people being able to defuse dangerous situations on their own.

From a criminal justice system perspective, however, the end result raises some real issues:

Prosecutors sought a sentence of 21 months, but a judge at federal court in Alexandria imposed only a nine-month sentence at Tuesday’s sentencing hearing.

Diaz was also ordered to pay $22,000 in restitution to United.

Another article notes that Diaz will also have to undergo substance abuse and mental health treatment, which is certainly the most important part of any sentence for the guy, but it should make you wonder what legitimate purpose nine months of confinement and a big restitution order could possibly serve.

If Diaz is rational enough to sit in prison during his nine months and think to himself, “gee, I sure regret yelling ‘jihad’ and running for that cockpit and will never do it again given my current unpleasant circumstances,” then he’s lucid enough to presently pose no risk of doing it at that point anyway. Furthermore, that sort of contemplation isn’t going to do much to stop another crazy spell. Neither general deterrence nor specific deterrence work particularly well on the insane.

The skills he’ll learn in custody, if he learns any at all, may help him deal with his problems when he gets out, but they’ll never be as effective as what he’d gain through supervision in the community tailored to address his unique issues in real world situations. What prison will do is probably stress out Diaz. Owing $22,000 will probably do the same, as Diaz doesn’t likely have that laying around. The restitution order may be important as something symbolic, but it isn’t like United Airlines is going to see that money anytime soon. When mental illness is the core issue and the reason for the offense itself, making the victim whole and rehabilitating the offender are particularly difficult.

Nine months of prison is long and useless enough, but twenty-one months gets into ridiculous territory. What made prosecutors think that Diaz deserves such a long sentence? Was it because what he did, even though it was just him being crazy, bothered the other passengers so much? Should we as a society really be in the habit of throwing the book at people not for what they did (which for Diaz was just yelling crazy stuff and running) or their state of mind (which for Diaz was out of his mind), but for how badly it triggered our largely disproportionate pre-existing fears about something? A twenty-one-month sentence would’ve had nothing to do at all with Diaz. It would’ve been a placebo for the rest of us.

Had Diaz made even an arguably legitimate attempt to take down and aircraft and then claimed he was insane, requiring some prison would make complete sense. What if he was faking it to avoid punishment, right? That isn’t the reality of the situation, however, as Diaz’s crime was pretty much just acting crazy, and it should be no surprise that his lawyer argued in mitigation that he did it because of mental illness.

Diaz’s sentence is just the system doing the thing it always does. It isn’t because it really makes a difference or is the right thing to do in any philosophical sense, but simply because it’s what the system does.

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