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HONOLULU (KHON2) – Prosecutors said the man accused of punching a Hawaiian Airlines flight attendant had been hearing voices weeks prior to the incident.

Steven Sloan Jr., 32, was back in federal court on Thursday for a detention hearing where a judge ruled that he posed a significant risk to himself or others, and must remain in custody.

Prosecutors told the judge that Sloan had been hearing voices for at least two weeks and questioned whether he had the mental competency to proceed with the hearing. The defense argued that Sloan is competent, and the judge agreed.

Sloan is accused of punching a male flight attendant, unprovoked, on a flight to Hilo on Thursday, Sept. 23. The plane returned to Honolulu where Sloan was arrested.

Legal experts said prosecutors tend to come down hard on unruly passengers who act violently.

“Usually when there’s a physical assault, they’re not very lenient in dropping charges to a lesser degree,” said Ali Silvert, a retired federal public defender. “Right now, it’s a felony and in this type of case it’s unusual for a prosecutor to drop it down to a misdemeanor.”

Silvert has represented about 30 people for similar incidents. A felony charge in cases such as this could mean up to 20 years in prison.

“Given that there may be mental issues involved in what happened, if that is true and can be proven, then the government might be more sympathetic and allow Mr. Sloan to plead to a misdemeanor,” said Silvert.

In addition to the voices, prosecutors also told the judge that Sloan has a history of drug abuse, which could also be a factor.

“If you have drug use or alcohol use that has affected your mental state of mind long-term, that is an issue,” Silvert added.

In addition to assault, Sloan is also charged with interference with a flight crew — a misdemeanor — that carries a one year sentence. Sloan is scheduled for a preliminary hearing on Monday, Oct. 11.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said in September that reports of unruly passengers were still coming in at twice the rate they were reported at the end of 2020. Since January 2021, the agency has received reports of at least 4,498 such incidents, the majority of which involve passengers refusing to comply with mask mandates.

The FAA has also proposed over $1,100,000 in civil penalties (collectively) against some of those disruptive passengers since enacting a zero-tolerance policy aimed at curbing bad behavior on commercial flights.