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How Someone Stole a Plane Without Breaking US Federal Law

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This video was was made possible by CuriosityStream When you sign up with the link in the description, you’ll also get access to Nebula, the streaming video platform that Wendover is a part of

Hello everybody and welcome to a Half as Interesting episode where we’ll be doing something a little different: talking about planes Now listen up, because this episode is serious—I’m not plane around Except for that one pun, which helps me to keep a flight tone Okay, I’ll stop now—any more puns and I’ll seem like a real cockpit To understand what you’re about to hear, we need to talk a bit about the history of planes

Planes are flat, two-dimensional geometric surfaces that were first described by the Greek mathematician Euclid around 300 BC in his seminal text Elem—ah, you know what, sorry, I’m just now realizing that’s the wrong type of plane Classic mistake, sorry about that, guys, I’m just a little out of my comfort zone with this whole, “planes,” thing Let me try again: the first successful airplane flight was in 1903, but it wasn’t until after World War II, in the 1950s, that planes really, you know, took off, which means that an airplane in 1926—when our story takes place—was like a man-bun in 2007: there were a few people who had them, but they were far from widespread, and with that in mind, let’s begin In 1926, a man named William McBoyle hired a pilot to steal a Waco airplane in Ottawa, Illinois and fly it to Guymon, Oklahoma After the plane had been stolen, McBoyle then instructed the pilot to take a similar airplane that McBoyle actually owned, and swap it with the stolen airplane to try to confuse the police

The pilot attempted to do that, but crashed, probably because planes in 1926—again, like man-buns—sucked So, much like the owner of a man-bun should be, McBoyle and the pilot were arrested, and McBoyle was convicted in federal court of violating the National Motor Vehicle Theft Act Specifically, he was convicted of Section 3 of that act, which outlaws, “transport[ing] or caus[ing] to be transported in interstate or foreign commerce a motor vehicle, knowing the same to have been stolen” After he was convicted, McBoyle’s lawyers filed an appeal—in which, in a truly galaxy-brain level argument, they claimed not that their client didn’t steal the airplane, not that he didn’t take it across state lines, but that he had done both those things, yet it didn’t matter because an airplane isn’t a motor vehicle The appeals court said they were wrong, and so the lawyers appealed to a group of out of touch old people wearing robes—no not that one, this one

The Supreme Court miraculously not only took the case but said that they agreed Writing for the majority, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes claimed that, “in everyday speech, ‘vehicle’ calls up the picture of a thing moving on land,” and in his conclusion, said that Congress probably meant to include airplanes somewhere in their law, but—possibly because airplanes were still pretty new—it seemed they had forgotten He wrote, “the statute should not be extended to aircraft simply because it may seem to us that a similar policy applies, or upon the speculation that, if the legislature had thought of it, very likely broader words would have been used” And so, the newly crowned lord of loopholes William McBoyle went free So, I guess the moral of the video is, find a new invention, like fidget spinners, and steal as many of them as possible before Congress makes a law about it

Yep, that seems like it definitely won’t backfire Alright, byeeeeee DEVIN: Whoa, whoa, whoa there, Sam, not so fast SAM: Oh! Hello, Devin from LegalEagle; what are you doing here, and how can you hear me? DEVIN: Well Sam, I’m here because I’m your lawyer, and I can hear you because I bugged your office to make sure that you weren’t doing anything illegal SAM: Wait, but isn’t bugging my office illegal? DEVIN: Um…

you know what Sam, why don’t you leave the lawyering to me That’s what you pay me for SAM: I don’t remember every agreeing to pay you DEVIN: Well Sam, if that were true, how do you explain the Jet Ski I just bought with 10% of your ad revenue

SAM: Um… I don’t… you know what let’s talk about this later The point is, I still don’t understand why you’re in my video DEVIN: Well Sam, I’m here because you just gave your audience some incredibly bad legal advice You see, William McBoyle did break the law—just not a federal law, which is what he was initially convicted of Stealing anything is illegal—whether it’s a wallet or a plane, or 10% of Sam’s ad revenue, but the generic law that says, “you can’t steal stuff,” is a state law, not a federal one

The reason is that federal law only covers the stuff that the constitution allows and that congress has addressed Everything else is left to the states — they have what’s call, “plenary,” authority Back in the 20s, Congress was so busy totally, 100% following prohibition that they hadn’t made a, “plane stealing law,” so there was no Federal law for McBoyle to be charged under By the way, this is a great example a, “canon of construction,” or theory of interpretation called ejusdem generis, which means, “of the same kind, class, or nature”— the law mentioned other kinds of transport, and could have mentioned aircraft, but didn’t Rightly or wrongly, we assume legislators know what they are doing when they draft laws—even if those laws do something dumb like forget that planes exist

If the statute of limitations hadn’t run, McBoyle could have been convicted under felony grand larceny in Illinois There’s no such thing as a free plane But there is such thing as a free subscription to Nebula, which is exactly what you’ll get when you sign up for CuriosityStream CuriosityStream is, of course, the documentary streaming service with thousands of top-quality films, including originals by people like Jane Goodall, David Attenborough, and even Stephen Hawking, and Nebula is the streaming service started by all your favorite educational creators: CGP Grey, MinutePhysics, me, even Devin from LegalEagle, who you might remember from… you know… 30 seconds ago Because we figured that people who like documentaries might also like the stuff we make, we came together to offer a great deal: when you sign up for an annual subscription to CuriosityStream, which is only $20 a year, you’ll also get a free annual subscription to Nebula

All you have to do is go the curiositystreamcom/HAI, and sign up to any one of their subscriptions

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