A glider pilot was ordered to land by the local sheriff’s department, even though the FAA told them the pilot had done nothing wrong, and even though the sheriff’s department had no authority to order him to land.
Pilot Robin Fleming (a 70 yr old experienced pilot with an impeccable record as an upstanding local citizen in every respect) complied, whereupon four of the 17 (!) police cars lined up along the runway chased his unpowered glider down the runway and arrested him as soon as the glider come to a stop.
His crime? Flying at a height officially estimated to be as low as 100 ft above a nearly nuclear power plant, violating the restricted airspace that surrounded the facility.
Except that – his digital flight recorder showed him never to have been less than 1,000 ft above the power plant, and – oh yes. There never was, and now is still not, any restriction on planes flying over the power plant!
The digital flight recorder shows that he merely made a single brief circling pass over the power plant as he continued to fly in the area (away from the power plant) circling around the areas of rising air, as glider pilots always do in order to stay aloft.
The sheriff’s own helicopter pilots also told the officers that the glider pilot had done nothing wrong, but were ignored.
The glider pilot was arrested and spent 24 hours in jail before being charged with ‘breaching the peace’; a charge subsequently dropped only in return for his agreeing not to sue the sheriff’s department.
The arrest notes contain plenty of other lies and distortions, and it seems from eye-witness accounts that some of the deputies wanted to simplify things and simply shoot down the glider. For example, quite apart from exaggerating how close the glider got to the power station by a factor of ten, the arrest notes also say the pilot had to be ordered several times to land.
Ignoring – if we can – the fact that the sheriff’s department had no jurisdiction to order the pilot to do anything at all, and further ignoring the fact that the FAA had already told the sheriff’s department that the pilot need not land, the airport radio operator who actually relayed the messages between the sheriff’s department and the pilot said that she never passed any order at all, let alone multiple times. She told the pilot that the sheriff’s department were asking him to land, but that the FAA had said he did not have to do so. The pilot’s response was that he would comply and be there in a minute or two, which is what happened.
For the first four hours of his arrest, the police refused to even allow the pilot a single phone call to anyone, causing his gliding club colleagues to worry that he may have crashed and to mount a search and rescue effort to locate him.
It is bad enough that the police lie, distort and exaggerate the nature of an offense, particularly because without fail the courts tend to favor the word of the police over the word of the defendant in any criminal action. But how about arresting and imprisoning Mr Fleming – for 24 hours – over an imaginary offense that does not exist anywhere except in the overly imaginative minds of the sheriff’s department? He spent an unpleasant night in a tiny cell shared with 11 other inmates and it was only 22 hours later that he was even told the nature of the charge he was accused of.
The next afternoon – still in jail – he was taken in handcuffs to an interview room where two Homeland Security agents and one FBI agent interviewed him further.
Maybe one can understand a small South Carolina Sheriff’s office getting it wrong (at least for the first hour or two) but how is it, a day later, that the FBI and HSD agents also all acted as though this pilot had done something illegal?
They say that ignorance of the law is no excuse – at least, that’s the case when we inadvertently break some obtuse and little known law. But are we to accept that ignorance of the law is an excuse when the police and two different federal agencies all collude to arrest, lock up, and then charge an innocent citizen with a non-existent crime?
Mr Fleming was charged with breaching the peace and allowed to post bail. It was only the next month, immediately prior to a court hearing, that the police agreed to drop the charge, but only if he promised not to then sue them for all the many causes of action he rightfully could have pursued.
One wonders about the bully tactic of ‘We’ll drop the charge against you that we should never have filed and which we couldn’t possibly succeed in prosecuting you with, but only if you’ll promise not to sue us for all the breaches of your rights that we willfully and negligently caused’.
It would be naive to say that the pilot should have insisted on proceeding with the case and securing an official exoneration in court, because how many thousands of dollars in attorney fees would that have cost him (you don’t get awarded your fees if you win in a criminal case)? It isn’t just money as well, how many hours of his time, and how many trips to court would be involved? And, most of all – how much worry would he have to suffer while lying awake sleepless at night, that a ‘justice’ system already pegging in the red zone of dysfunctionality for his case might not continue to fail and end up with him being convicted of a non-existent crime?
More details here.