Calif. Laser Pointer Is no Bin Laden, Court Finds

     SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – Prosecutors failed to show that a man who pointed a laser at a helicopter did so with harmful intent, the Ninth Circuit ruled Wednesday.
     When Sergio 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, according to Wednesday’s ruling.
     Rodriguez got 14 years in prison after he was convicted for aiming a laser pointer at helicopter and for willfully attempting to interfere with the aircraft’s safe operations in reckless disregard for human safety.
     Reversing the latter conviction Wednesday, the Ninth Circuit cited “insufficient evidence that he willfully attempted to interfere with the safe flight of the helicopter.”
     “Rather, the evidence showed that he was attempting to see how far his laser would go at night – a stupid thing to do, yes, but there is no evidence that he was trying to interfere with the pilot,” Judge Barry Silverman wrote for a three-person panel.
     The conviction Rodriguez received for aiming the laser “is designed for knuckleheads like him,” the 21-page opinion continues.
     But the second conviction “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,”
     Silverman said.
     “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 added.
     Reversing the interference conviction comports with the court’s April 30 decision in United States v. Gardenhire.
     In that case, the circuit found 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,” Silverman said.
     By applying the reckless endangerment enhancement in Gardenhire’s case, the district court “made the unsupported leap from deliberate and intentional action to consciousness of risk.”
     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 ruling states.
     Neither side could be reached for comment on Wednesday.

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