A Four-Month Sentence for the Gyrocopter Mailman

The Florida man flew onto the West Lawn of the Capitol in 2015 to demand campaign-finance reform.  

A member of the bomb squad stands near Doug Hughes's gyrocopter on the West Lawn of the Capitol. (Andrew Harnik / Reuters)

A mailman who flew a gyrocopter and landed on the West Lawn of the Capitol was sentenced Thursday in a U.S. District Court to four months in prison. Doug Hughes, a 62-year-old from a town near Tampa Bay, Florida, had originally faced six charges, which could have landed him up to nine years.

He pleaded to just one, flying without a license, which is a felony. Back in April 2015, Hughes took off from Gettysburg and piloted the gyrocopter more than an hour to deliver a message of campaign-finance reform to U.S. politicians. At his sentencing Thursday, Hughes compared himself to activists like Rosa Parks and the Freedom Riders.

The Tampa Bay Times wrote:

Hughes, who has no criminal record, apologized to law enforcement, citizens of Washington and his family for the "enormous uncertainty" his flight brought to their lives. But, he said, he didn't regret the flight. "It provided me a forum for my concerns."

Prosecutors asked the judge for 10 months. But in sentencing Hughes to four months – which his supporters said was still extreme for a stunt in which no one was hurt and no property was damaged – U.S. District Court Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly said there was "an important difference" between Hughes' flight and the nonviolent civil disobedience of people such as Parks and the Freedom Riders.

"Their civil disobedience was directly related to the laws they were protesting," she said. "His civil disobedience was totally unrelated to his political cause."

Hughes had carried with him on his flight––in mailman fashion––a bag of 535 letters for each member of Congress. He’d hoped the stunt would bring more attention to what he saw as the venality of campaign finance, and how lawmakers take money from corporations, which Hughes believed corrupts politics. Hughes had planned the the flight for 2 ½ years, and even told some friends about it. Somehow, the Secret Service found out, visited his home in 2013, and talked with him—but nothing came of it. When asked how he felt about the sentencing on Thursday, Hughes told reporters, “I’m certainly not totally pleased, nor am I terribly disappointed … ”

As part of his sentence, Hughes won’t be allowed to enter the White House, or the Capitol building, unless he receives special permission.