Today in 1931, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling that at first glance is pretty perplexing: it seems to say that a guy who stole an airplane was not guilty of breaking the law against stealing motor vehicles.

It’s actually a little more complicated than that.

As Now I Know reported a while back, the law in question here was known as the Dyer Act, which Congress passed in 1919.

At the time, cars were new and unfortunately pretty steal-able, so the new law said anyone who knowingly moved a stolen motor vehicle across state lines could face as much as $5,000 in fines, up to five years in prison, or both.

This let federal law enforcement help local authorities crack down on car thieves.

The feds ended up tracking down gangster John Dillinger because he had allegedly violated the Dyer Act.

Another guy the feds charged with violating the Dyer Act was William McBoyle.

He ran airfields in Illinois, and apparently he hired a guy to steal an airplane, fly it south and then bring back a similar plane in Illinois.

This very convoluted plan may have been related to bootleg whiskey.

It was also a mess: both flights ran into trouble and one of the planes crashed.

The authorities saw a stolen plane that had been moved over state lines.

They charged McBoyle, who ended up with a hefty fine and a three year prison sentence.

But McBoyle decided to appeal.

He argued that the Dyer Act was about stealing cars, not airplanes.

The government said the law is the National Motor Vehicle Theft Act, the airplane had a motor, it was a vehicle, what more do you need to know?

When the case made it to the Supreme Court, the justices sided with McBoyle!

They said that while the definition of motor vehicles in the law doesn’t strictly exclude airplanes, it refers to vehicles that run, not fly.

And the popular understanding of the word “vehicle” at the time meant something that travels on land.

The unanimous decision of the high court in McBoyle v. United States was that the guy who had a plane he knew was stolen flown over state lines had not broken the Dyer Act, and therefore shouldn’t have to pay a fine or serve a prison sentence.

But this ruling did not lead to a big run on people stealing planes.

And even if it had, Congress eventually stepped in and amended the Dyer Act to prohibit moving a “a motor vehicle, vessel, or aircraft” that a person knows to be stolen.

A Lego fan has proposed the company produce a new set that looks like the famous painting The Scream.

And the Scream figure’s head opens up to hold a Lego version of artist Edvard Munch!


LEGO Ideas The Scream Achieves 10,000 Supporters (The Brick Fan)

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Photo by Thomas Hawk via Flickr/Creative Commons