Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Flights of (fanciful) law

The other night my wife and I watched Flight. For those of y'all not familiar with the movie - Denzel Washington playsWhip Whitaker, an airline pilot who has a bit of an alcohol and drug problem. After a late night filled with booze and coke, Denzell gets in the cockpit for a routine flight from Orlando to Atlanta.

A routine flight that was anything but.

After fighting turbulence and a thunderstorm a key piece of machinery in the plane's tail assembly breaks and the plane goes into an uncontrolled dive. Whip, however, as hungover as he may be, makes the decision to invert the plane to stabilize it. Once it's stabilized he flips it back right-side-up and crash lands in an open field.

Of the 102 passengers and crew on board, all but six survived.

In the end Whip goes to prison because he admitted to the NTSB that he was drunk when he flew the plane that fateful morning. We're never told what he actually went to prison for, however. And that raises, at least to me, a very interesting question.

Why was he in prison?

Yes, he was drunk that morning. He was drinking while on the plane. However, the accident wasn't caused by his intoxication. In fact, despite the fact he was drunk, Whip was able to bring the plane down with little loss of life. He had enough command of his mental faculties that he was able to devise a plan to land the plane in a field. he had enough command of his physical faculties that he was able to invert the plane not once, but twice, before landing in the field.

At most he should have been convicted of flying while intoxicated - a misdemeanor. But he was convicted of a felony because he stated he had been in prison for a year-and-a-half and had another four or five years to go.

The situation he was in mirrored that of a defendant charged with intoxication assault or intoxication manslaughter. Yes, the state must prove the defendant was intoxicated at the time of driving - but they must also prove that the defendant's intoxication was the proximate cause of the accident.

And that's not something the state could prove up in Flight because the proximate cause of the crash was a mechanical failure - not pilot error. So, while Whip could have been charged with intoxication manslaughter, a conviction of anything beyond flying while intoxicated would be pure fiction.

Now I understand the need to advance the plot and the need for Whip to find redemption upon hitting rock bottom. But let's just make everyone just a little bit stupider in the process.

No comments: