California Laser Pointer Got Too Harsh a Sentence

     (CN) – A teenager who aimed a laser pointer at a jet and a police helicopter should not have been sentenced to 30 months in federal prison, the 9th Circuit ruled Thursday.
     Adam Gardenhire was 18 in March 2012 when he pointed a green laser at a jet as it approached Burbank Airport. Though momentarily blinded, the pilot was able to land the aircraft safely.
     Gardenhire also aimed the laser pointer at a police helicopter that was trying to determine where the laser was coming from.
     Federal prosecutors charged Gardenhire with two counts of knowingly aiming the beam of a laser pointer at an aircraft, and he pleaded guilty to the counts in October 2012.
     U.S. District Judge Stephen Wilson in Los Angeles imposed a 30-month prison sentence on Gardenhire in March 2013, saying “the prison term should serve as a message to other would-be defendants,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office then said in a statement.
     But the 9th Circuit found Thursday that the government did not present enough evidence that Gardenhire “recklessly abandoned the aircraft.”
     While Gardenhire told the FBI that he tried to hit the aircraft with the laser pointer, it does not show that he “was aware that if he hit the jet, as intended, he could blind or distract the pilot,” Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw wrote for a three-judge panel.
     “The District Court’s finding that Gardenhire was aware of the risk created by his conduct lastly rests on the fact that Gardenhire’s high school friend who lent him the laser told him ‘not to shine the laser at anyone’s eyes because it would blind people,'” the ruling from Pasadena states. “But knowing that a laser beam can cause blindness when pointed directly at a person’s eyes is very different than knowing that a laser beam can be distracting to pilots who are both enclosed in a cockpit and at least 2,640 feet away.”
     Gardenhire must be resentenced, but not by Wilson, the court found, noting that he claimed he would impose the same sentence “even if the Ninth Circuit rules that the sentencing guideline should not incorporate the recklessness enhancement.”
     A statement like this, Wardlaw says, indicates Wilson’s “idea that, regardless of the evidence presented, Gardenhire’s conduct was reckless and the above-guidelines sentence was needed to deter others.”
     Gardenhire’s charged conduct falls under the same sentencing guideline used for terrorist attacks, and the recklessness enhancement doubled the base offense. Without the recklessness enhancement, Gardenhire would face a sentence of four to 10 months, the ruling states.
     Federal public defender Matthew Larsen applauded the court for recognizing “Adam’s conduct for what it was: an unknowing teenage mistake rather than something he knew might be dangerous.”
     “Youngsters shouldn’t be sent to prison for such mistakes, especially when they harm no one,” Larsen said in a statement. “We’re also appreciative of the Court’s explaining how the Sentencing Guideline at issue covers a vast range of conduct, and how Adam’s aiming a handheld laser pointer at a far-off jet is nothing like a passenger’s reckless behavior on a plane — which is something that truly can endanger lives.”
     The U.S. Attorney Office for the Central District of California said it is still reviewing Wardlaw’s opinion but declined further comment.

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