A New York woman was sentenced to four months in prison after spitting on a passenger and then pushing a flight attendant on an American Airlines flight in February 2021, a year that saw a record number of incidents of unruly and violent aircraft behavior.
Kelly Pichardo, a 32-year-old single mother living in the Bronx, was convicted on Aug. 29 in U.S. District Court in Arizona, where Judge Dominic W. Lanza also ordered her to pay $9,123 in restitution. After her release from prison, according to court documents, she will be released under surveillance for 36 months.
“There is a line between rude behavior on an airplane and criminal activity, and the defendant has clearly crossed it.” Gary Restaino, the The United States Attorney for the District of Arizona said in a statement.
Ms. Pichardo, who has a 12-year-old daughter and lives with her mother, did not respond to requests for comment. She pleaded guilty in May to one charge of interference with a flight crew member.
“Madam. Pichardo is very ashamed of what she did on the plane that day,” her lawyer Ana Botello said in an email.
The altercation took place as mask mandates and Covid-19 restrictions sparked tensions on planes, where unruly and violent passengers pushed, beat and yelled at flight attendants and other passengers.
In May 2021, a woman repeatedly punched a flight attendant, getting blood in her face and breaking three of her teeth. Within days of that attack, two major airlines, American and Southwest, which had temporarily stopped serving alcohol on flights in an effort to curb bad behavior, postponed plans to start serving it again. Both airlines have since resumed alcohol sales. The woman in that case was sentenced to 15 months in prison.
Ms. Pichardo flew first class from Dallas to Los Angeles with a friend on Feb. 24, 2021, according to prosecutors and court documents detailing the case.
The friend used a racist insult while they were talking, causing a black passenger sitting behind the two women to touch Ms Pichardo on the shoulder and admonish them.
Ms. Pichardo spat on the passenger, who was “racially abused,” prosecutors said.
She became “even angrier” when other passengers tried to record the interaction with their cell phone cameras, according to court documents.
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A member of the flight crew arrived to defuse the situation, and Mrs Pichardo lunged at him, pushing him in the chest as she tried to get past him.
The flight was diverted to Phoenix, where Ms. Pichardo and her boyfriend were arrested. The friend was identified by prosecutors as Leeza Rodriguez, who pleaded guilty to meddling with a flight attendant last month, according to court documents. She will be convicted in November.
Prosecutors recommended a four-month prison sentence for Ms Pichardo, arguing that it would show the public the consequences of “acting unruly on aircraft”.
“This is incredibly important now, with these incidents on the rise in the past year,” they wrote in a sentencing memorandum, recommending what kind of punishment a suspect should receive.
“With an increase in air travel this summer compared to years before, there is a risk of more of these incidents happening across the country,” the prosecutors wrote.
Reports of unruly passenger behavior began to dwindle shortly after a federal judge in Florida repealed a federal mandate for masks on public transportation in April.
The lawyers of Mrs. Pichardo asked Judge Lanza to sentence her to 5 years’ probation or let her serve her sentence at home, noting that she has been working at a local restaurant since her arrest.
They said Ms Pichardo had been sexually abused as a child and had a history of mental illness.
“This is a case where alcohol, the stress of flying and the fact that Ms. Pichardo, while stuck to her airplane seat, was touched by a stranger, evoked all the feelings she felt like an abused child and caused her to snap. ,” wrote Ms. Botello and another attorney, Jon M. Sands.
It is not uncommon for a defendant to receive a severe sentence in a case like this, in which passengers and crew members were attacked in a confined space, he said. Lisa Wayne, executive director of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. The outcry at seeing flight attendants abuse has also led prosecutors and judges to demand harsh sentences against suspects charged with such crimes, she said.
“This is the worst time to get this kind of thing,” Mrs. Wayne said.
But she questioned the purpose of imprisoning Ms. Pichardo rather than letting her serve a sentence at home where she could continue to work and pay the fines imposed by the court.
Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, said sentences handed down to suspects convicted of assault should serve as a deterrent “for bad actors in the air or at airports.”
“Interns are aviation’s first responders, not targets for crazy passengers,” she said in a statement. “Assault is a federal crime in air travel. Period of time.”
An American Airlines spokesperson declined to comment on the verdict, referring to a statement the company issued shortly after Ms. Pichardo’s arrest, thanking the crew members “for their professionalism in handling a difficult situation.”
Mrs. Pichardo begins serving her sentence on… Oct 28