Court Rules That Not Every “Knucklehead” Pointing a Laser at Aircraft Is Osama bin Laden

Thursday, June 25, 2015
(photo: Federal Aviation Administration)

The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals didn't actually call anyone a moron, but the tone of their ruling that took 14 years off the sentence of a Fresno guy who shined a laser at a helicopter was apparent from the ruling's opening words.

“There ought to be a law against shining a laser pointer at an aircraft. In fact, there is, and it's punishable by up to five years in prison, as appellant Sergio Rodriguez discovered for himself,” Judge Barry G. Silverman wrote for the three-judge panel. “Section 39A is designed for knuckleheads like him.”

Rodriguez didn't contest his conviction for breaking that law. He was appealing his additional conviction for violating a law Silverman described as being “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 court said Rodriguez was obviously neither of those: “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.”

The same court ruled the same way in a similar case in April, after the U.S. District Court convicted Rodriguez. It should be noted that AllGov California referred to the earlier North Hollywood appellant, Adam Gardenhire, and other laser pointers as “Knuckleheads” in a headline months before Judge Silverman used it.

Rodriguez was busted after flashing his laser at a medical transport helicopter on its way to pick up a patient at night on August 25, 2012. The refracted beam bathed the cockpit in blinding green light twice. The pilot called the Fresno Police Department, who sent up a helicopter of their own. They got flashed, too, but pinpointed the source for officers on the ground.

Rodriguez was outside his apartment building, with his girlfriend, a bunch of kids and other residents when the cops showed up. He made a run for it. Rodriguez's laser was nothing special; they're available everywhere. It had 65 milliwatts of power, enough to “cause after-image, flash blindness, glare, and distraction, and could cause permanent injury to the eye up to around 180 feet,” defense expert Samuel Goldwasser testified in court.

Much was made by government prosecutors that Rodriguez was not unaware that he was doing something bad. Silverman acknowledged that but emphasized that “deliberate and intentional action” does not automatically indicate a “consciousness of risk” and a “reckless disregard for the safety of human life.”

The court did not take lightly the danger of laser pointers and aircraft.

Federal and state laws forbid aiming a laser beam at aircraft. The federal law was passed in 2012 after a big jump in incidents after 2004. They climbed from 46 to 949 by 2008, 1,527 in 2009, 2,835 in 2010 and 3,591 in 2011. Laser pointers are used in educational and business presentations, in industrial settings, for leisure and entertainment (“Star Wars” duels), and as gun sights on weapons. There are different color laser beams, but green is by far the most widely used.

Thousands of attacks go unreported each year.  But since the federal law passed, there were 3,482 known incidents 2012, 3,960 in 2013 and 3,894 in 2014. Seven hundred and thirty-four of the incidents in 2013 were in California, ahead of Texas (416) and Florida (326).

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

Calif. Laser Pointer Is No Bin Laden, Court Finds (by Katherine Proctor, Courthouse News Service)

Appeals Court Overturns Harsh 14-Year Prison Sentence in Laser Strike Case (by Cyrus Farivar, Ars Technica)

L.A. and California Lead the Nation in Knuckleheads Pointing Lasers at Aircraft (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

United States of America v. Sergio Patrick Rodriguez (U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals)

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