Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Thursday, June 25, 2015


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Ninth Circuit Overturns ‘Knucklehead’s’ Conviction for Deliberately Pointing Laser at Helicopter


By a MetNews Staff Writer


The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals yesterday overturned a Fresno man’s conviction and 14-year prison sentence for attempted interference with the safe operation of an aircraft, an offense he was found guilty of committing by aiming a laser pointer at a helicopter.

The panel held that Sergio Rodriguez lacked intent to harm the helicopter’s pilot, an element of the offense under §32(a)(5) and (8). The court threw out his conviction on that charge and ordered the district judge to reconsider the concurrent five-year sentence that he imposed for aiming the laser pointer at the aircraft in violation of §39A.

While the defense did not dispute on appeal that Rodriguez violated §39A, Judge Barry Silverman wrote, the sentence should be revisited in light of an intervening Ninth Circuit decision and because the judge specifically took the now-vacated §32 conviction into account in determining the penalty.

Rodriguez shined a laser pointer at the medical transport helicopter cruising 1,100 feet above his home in Fresno, the pilot reported the interference and continued onto his destination.

The green laser light hit Fresno police helicopters as well, leading ground patrol to Rodriguez’s doorstep.

Rodriguez was outside with his girlfriend and her children.

Though officers found the laser in Rodriguez’s pocket, his girlfriend initially tried to take the blame for testing out the light’s strength.

“It wasn’t her fault that the helicopter flew in front of the laser,” the woman said, adding that she didn’t think laser pointers were particularly dangerous, recalling that as a child, she was able to buy them from an ice cream truck.

Rodriguez wasn’t trying to bring down the plane or injure the pilot’s vision, Silverman said, but to see how far the laser light would go. Section 39A, the judge explained, “is designed for knuckleheads like him,” while the more serious charge “is designed for both the Osama bin Ladens of the world - people trying to bring down a plane, intending to cause harm - and those who are aware that their actions are dangerous and could harm others, but just don’t care.”

The judge added:

“The failure to recognize this distinction is to fail to appreciate that Congress saw fit to create two different crimes, one more serious than the other, for two different types of offenders.”

He cited the court’s April 30 decision in United States v. Gardenhire, 784 F.3d 1277, in which the court found that “another knucklehead,” as Silverman put it, had received an excessive sentence under §39A. The court reasoned that the fact “that one knows that the laser is dangerous when pointed directly in a person’s eyes does not mean that one knows about the beam’s ability to expand and refract, rendering it particularly hazardous for pilots in an aircraft miles away, or that the danger is heightened at nighttime because the pilot’s eyes have adjusted to the dark.”

Laser beams do not operate like regular beams of light, however, thus making it “inappropriate” to conclude that Adam Gardenhire, 18 at the time of his infraction, knew about the risk he created by shining a laser at an aircraft, the court found.

Prosecutors would first need to show “that similarly situated defendants, or even average people, understand how laser beams operate,” the judge said, finding that the judge who sentenced Gardenhire  “made the unsupported leap from deliberate and intentional action to consciousness of risk” in applying a sentence enhancement.

Similarly, Rodriguez’s intentionally shining the laser at the helicopter “is not, in and of itself, sufficient to allow a rational factfinder to conclude that Rodriguez acted with a reckless disregard for the safety of human life,” Silverman said.

Prosecutors did have a point in emphasizing that Rodriguez ran when police arrived at his apartment complex, “but his evasive conduct sheds no light, so to speak, on whether he was trying to willfully interfere with the safe operation of the aircraft with a reckless disregard for the safety of human life, as opposed to less serious legal conduct,” the jurist wrote.

The case is United States v. Rodriguez, 14-10122.


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