Overview: This weeks Law Review highlights Jim Porter’s favorite word ‘knucklehead’ which the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals used to describe a Fresno resident who tested how far his kid’s laser would point by…you guessed it, pointing it at helicopters flying over his apartment, for which he was convicted of a four year prison term but avoided a 14 -year term.
“Knucklehead” is one of my favorite words. It describes perfectly someone who acts foolishly yet without malice. Just hearing the word makes me smile.
“Knucklehead” is the Court of Appeals’ conclusion in United States v. Sergio Rodriguez. Sergio Rodriguez and his girlfriend Jennifer Coleman purchased a laser on Amazon.com for around $7.00 as a toy for her children.
Rodriquez and Coleman and her kids were fooling around in the back yard of their apartment complex on August 25, 2012, when around 9:00 p.m. they decided to see how far up the laser pointer could go. So they did what any fool would — aimed the laser at overflying helicopters.
Two helicopters conveniently flew over their back yard, one at an altitude of 1,100 feet and another at 500 feet. Both pilots reported a “big flare…lighting up the entire cockpit.”
Not so Bright
While the 5 milliwatts laser was bright, Rodriquez and Coleman — not so much — as they kept up their fun long enough for the Fresno police to arrive and arrest Rodriquez.
Aiming a Laser at an Aircraft
Rodriquez was charged and convicted of two separate crimes. The first was for “Aiming a Laser Pointer at an Aircraft” in violation of federal law. He was sentenced to the maximum term of five years in prison. But that’s not all.
The government does not fool around when it comes to pointing lasers at aircraft. Rodriguez was also convicted of another crime – “Attempting to Interfere with the Safe Operation of an Aircraft” in violation of a different federal law, both part of 18 United States Code. The second crime requires proof of a willful attempt to interfere with the operation of an aircraft, with either the intent to endanger others or reckless disregard for human life.
Rodriguez was found guilty of the reckless variety, and for that offense was sentenced to 14 years in prison. 14 years.
There Ought to be a Law
This Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals’ opinion started with, “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…”
Rodriguez accepted the five year prison sentence, but appealed the 14-year conviction, arguing he did not willfully attempt to interfere with the safe flight of the helicopters.
As the justices wrote, the first violation with the five year sentence was “designed for Knuckleheads like [Rodriguez].” On the other hand, as the Court wrote, “the second charge for attempting to interfere with the operation of an aircraft is designed for both the Osama bin Laden’s 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 of Appeal allowed the five year prison term to stand but overturned the 14-year term acknowledging that Rodriguez was “stupid and a knucklehead” but was not aware of the risk created by pointing the laser at the helicopters.
Several experts at the trial testified that federal regulations prohibit the sale of lasers stronger than 5 milliwatts. Rodriguez’ $7.00 laser had approximately 65 milliwatts of power. They further testified that about 90 percent of lasers purchased in the United States are not in compliance with federal regulations.
The experts testified that Rodriguez’ laser — up to 180 feet — could cause permanent injury to someone’s eyes. At a height of 1,100 feet like the first helicopter, the laser beam would have a diameter of about 11 feet which would interfere with a pilot operating an aircraft.
So whether a knucklehead (I had to say it) or terrorist, the point is (pun intended), our government means business when it comes to lasers.
Jim Porter is an attorney with Porter Simon licensed in California and Nevada, with offices in Truckee and Tahoe City, California, and Reno, Nevada. Jim’s practice areas include: real estate, development, construction, business, HOA’s, contracts, personal injury, mediation and other transactional matters. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.portersimon.com.
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