Pasadena Appeals Court Reduces Sentence for Man Who Aimed Laser Pointer at Helicopters

Published : Thursday, November 3, 2016 | 5:33 AM

A California man will have to spend five years in federal prison for pointing a powerful laser at helicopters, after the Ninth Circuit in Pasadena affirmed a portion of his sentence last week.

The appeal was heard in the federal courthouse on Grand Avenue in Pasadena.

The case against Sergio Patrick Rodriguez, now 28, of Clovis, serves as another reminder that the law against aiming a laser pointer at an aircraft guarantees dire consequences for those who knowingly or unknowingly defies it.

Rodrigues was originally sentenced to 14 years in prison, but the Pasadena court in June 2015 decided to reduce it to five years. The October 17 decision was to uphold the five-year sentence.

The Rodriguez case began on August 25, 2012 when a helicopter from the Children’s Hospital of Central California was illuminated by a green laser. A police helicopter, Fresno Police Department’s Air 1, was sent to investigate. It was repeatedly and deliberately struck by the light, later traced back to Rodriguez and his girlfriend, Jennifer Lorraine Coleman, now 25.

Pilots from both helicopters said the laser strikes caused significant visual interference.

The laser’s power was later measured as 65 milliwatts, which is 13 times the 5 mW limit for lasers marketed as “pointers” in the U.S.

Rodriguez and Coleman were charged with violating 18 USC 32A, or “willfully attempting to interfere with the safe flight of an aircraft by aiming a laser pointer at it,” and 18 USC 39A, aiming a laser pointer at an aircraft.

A federal jury in December convicted Rodriguez of aiming a laser pointer at an aircraft and another count of intentionally aiming a laser pointer at an aircraft to try to interfere with its safe flight. He was sentenced to 5 years on the first charge and 14 years on the other one.

The Ninth Circuit overturned the 14-year sentence on appeal, finding insufficient evidence that Rodriguez wanted to bring down the helicopter or understood how dangerous his actions were.

“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,” Ninth Circuit Judge Barry Silverman wrote for the three-judge panel in June 2105.

But Silverman added that the conviction for pointing the laser at a helicopter in flight “is designed for knuckleheads like him.”

That panel Circuit remanded the other conviction for resentencing, even though Rodriguez did not appeal it. The district court resentenced him to 5 years and Rodriguez appealed. This time he lost.

In its unpublished, unanimous opinion, the panel found the sentence reasonable, even though the advisory guidelines call for a sentence of 21 to 27 months.

“The district judge reasonably found that Rodriguez’s offense involved ‘a dangerous, dangerous circumstance,’” the panel wrote. “Aiming the laser pointer at the helicopter just once would have been sufficient for a § 39A offense, but Rodriguez increased the dangerousness of the offense by striking the helicopter six or seven times.”

Other aggravating factors included Rodriguez’s involving minor children and having a criminal history, including gang involvement. He was on probation when he committed his crime.

The panel that affirmed the 5-year sentence consisted of Ninth Circuit Judges Susan Graber and Mary Murguia and Senior District Judge Mark Bennett, from the Northern District of Iowa, sitting by designation.

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