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AVmail: September 2, 2010 — The King Thing

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Rarely have we seen the spontaneous outpouring of reader response that we have with the gunpoint detention of John and Martha King last weekend. We've picked a few letters that represent a broad range of views on the fallout from the incident. We also encourage you to take part in our weekly "Question of the Week" reader's poll, which is related to the incident.

My hat is off to the Kings. For years I have recommended their training materials to students because of their quality. Now they show how deep their class act really runs, as they offer to provide training in response to their encounter with police. Lots of other people and organizations, to include the FAA, would benefit by taking note of how these two professionals aim toward making a positive ending out of a negative situation.

Jake Huffman

To my mind, Martha's comments underscore two key points:

  1. Law enforcement agencies need some minimal training on aircraft if they're going to accept the challenges of dealing with the issues at an airport. We have the TSA dealing with airport security because the nation felt that local agencies are improperly equipped to do so. This experience indicates that the SBPD is little better-equipped or trained to deal with aviation matters.
  2. Our federal tax dollars are being wasted. As Martha comments, this N-number has been flying for well over a year in the ATC system, and this seems to be the first time anything happened. [It was actually the second time. Editor]. Or other agencies did their homework first. Seems that all those tax dollars spent to make us safer aren't performing as advertised.

Also: Since when will a bad guy file a flight plan using a stolen plan's N-number? If the nation is serious about tracking illicit aircraft, why not hook the ATC computers into the hot list and let the appropriate agency get direct notification? Since the notification would come from the FAA's own registration database, then it might have a chance of being correct.

Sorry, just trying to be rational in an irrational world. Dangerous behavior, of course.

Jim McDuffie

I am a disabled veteran and former law enforcement officer. I also used to fly as a private pilot. The Kings' blaming the Santa Barbara Police, who were following policy, is wrong. They should have been happy that the police were doing the job handed to them.

The blame should go to the reassignment of the N-number before it was cleared. That is where it should have been double-checked. The same thing happens to motor vehicles reported stolen. The police respond armed and ready . They will not gamble their lives on a slim chance the occupants may be innocent.

As for the Kings, they seemed to know the type of people who steal airplanes. I have come across criminals of all types. You cannot tell if a well-dressed man is a robber, killer, businessman, family man or whatever by looking!

AOPA President Craig Fuller should be demanding answers as to why this was going on for eight years and why more agencies didn't act on the stolen plane and N-number; otherwise, the police will back off, and thieves will be able to steal more aircraft.

Jim Miller

Just what does a "typical airplane thief" look like, and what in Martha King's law enforcement resume qualifies her to judge what is "unnecessarily dangerous"? Given what's going on with smugglers, the border, etc., I wouldn't have taken any chances, either.

M. Jones

I write to answer Martha King's question, "How widespread is this?" As an AOPA member, private pilot, aircraft owner and criminal defense lawyer with 30 years in the practice, I can tell you that over-aggressive, negligent police work has never been more widespread than it is now. Police simply do not have to engage in due diligence; they are not concerned about civil liability because of overly broad governmental immunity statutes, and they justify shoddy professional practice in the name of being aggressive in the fight against crime and the war against terrorism.

Mrs. King and the rest of us should recognize certain cold, hard facts about our government as it exists today:

  1. Our civil rights and liberties are viewed as an impediment to law enforcement. This is not surprising, for these amendments the Bill of Rights are a series of limitations on the authority of government. Government employees are philosophically opposed to limitation on their authority because it makes their job more difficult.
  2. If one of the officers holding a gun on the Kings had felt honestly but subjectively threatened by an action or "furtive movement" and had opened fire, he or she would have been immune from liability for the injury or death that resulted.
  3. If the issue had been a mistaken allegation of domestic terrorism instead of a stolen airplane and suspected drug smuggling, the Kings could have been arrested, held incommunicado for an indefinite time period and interrogated without being charged, and, once again, the "merely negligent" government employees would have been immune.

Frankly, the Kings should understand that they are lucky for being white, in an aircraft and in Santa Barbara. If they had been black or brown, in a car and in Detroit, the story might have been quite different.

In 30 years of practice, I have yet to hear a cogent and reasonable explanation about why government employees should not be held to the same standards of civil liability as, for example, the Kings and myself are held. I am not suggesting opening the public coffers to pay for verdicts against negligent police officers and federal EPIC workers. I am suggesting that they bear the responsibility of carrying their own insurance. Personal liability would encourage them to engage in due diligence before acting, and it is the only way to compel them to be circumspect about the exercise of the power we as a society have given them the authority to wield.

One final comment: We have only ourselves to blame for this state of affairs. We allowed, even encouraged, the government after 9/11 to enact laws such as the Patriot Act. If the truth be known, this war on the first 14 amendments to the Constitution began long before that, and as we have sown, so shall we now reap.

Harry R. Reinhart

We all owe John And Martha thanks for the incident at Santa Barbara. As well-connected, highly respected and highly visible individuals, what happened probably got the attention of the system and will, I hope, correct things. If it had been me or some other Joe Blow, nothing would have come of it!

Pete Speth


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