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US: UPDATED - Bakersfield man indicted for lasing police helicopter and possessing seven bombs

A Bakersfield (Calif.) man was indicted July 16 2015 by a federal grand jury for aiming a green laser pointer at a Kern County Sheriff’s helicopter. The device was key-activated and was labeled “Laser 301.” He faces up to five years in prison and/or a fine of up to $250,000.

Pablo Cesar Sahagun, 26, was also charged with possessing seven “cricket bombs,” made by filling an empty CO2 cartridge with gunpowder or flash powder, and attaching a fuse. If convicted, Sahagun would face an additional ten years and/or a fine of up to $10,000.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Karen A. Escobar is prosecuting the case.

From the U.S. Attorney’s Office Eastern District of California press release dated July 21 2015

UPDATED - April 18 2016: Sahagun was sentenced to 18 months in prison. He had pleaded guilty on January 11 2016. From Bakersfield.com

US: Appeals court overturns 14-year sentence for Californian Sergio Rodriguez

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit on June 24 2015 overturned the 14-year conviction of Sergio Rodriguez.

On August 25 2012, Rodriguez and his then-girlfriend repeatedly aimed a $8.00 green laser at a Fresno Police Department helicopter. On March 10 2014, Rodriguez was sentenced on two charges; one with a penalty of 5 years in prison and the other with a 14-year sentence. (According to an analysis by LaserPointerSafety.com, 8 of the 14 years were imposed for the laser violation, and an additional 6 years were due to Rodriguez’s prior criminal history of gang affiliation and numerous probation violations.)

Rodriguez received 5 years in prison on a charge of aiming the laser at an aircraft (18 U.S.C. § 39A). This sentence was upheld by the Ninth Circuit. Judge Barry Silverman, writing for the panel, said that “the evidence showed that [Rodriguez] 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.” Silverman added that this conviction “is designed for knuckleheads like him.”

But the 14-year sentence was overturned on the charge of willfully attempting to interfere with the safe operation of an aircraft in reckless disregard for human safety (18 U.S.C. § 32). Silverman wrote that this 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…. 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 judges referenced an April 30 2015 decision in United States v. Gardenhire. In this case, judges said that even if a person knows that a laser is dangerous when pointed directly at someone’s eyes, they may not know the “bright light” danger miles away to a pilot operating at nighttime.

Silverman noted that to uphold a reckless endangerment charge, prosecutors would have to show that “similarly situated defendants, or even average people, understand how laser beams operate.” Just aiming at a 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.”

From Courthouse News Service and Ars Technica. The full decision of the court is reprinted below, click on the “Read More…” link.

UPDATED November 4 2016: Rodriguez appealed the June 2015 5-year sentence. On October 17 2016, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the 5-year sentence. In an unpublished, unanimous opinion, a three-judge panel found the sentence was reasonable, even though advisory guidelines call for a sentence of only 21 to 27 months (1.75 to 2.25 years).

This was due to a number of factors: 1) “Rodriguez increased the dangerousness of the offense by striking the helicopter six or seven times,”, 2) minor children were involved, 3) he had a criminal history including gang involvement and 4) he was on probation when the laser illuminations occurred. From Ars Technica, Pasadena News Now and Courthouse News Service
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US: UPDATED - Two Calif. men indicted for separate laser-pointing incidents on helicopters

On March 26 2015, a federal grand jury indicted two California men for aiming green laser beams at law enforcement helicopters. In both cases, the air crews involved experienced vision difficulties.

Case 1: Johnny Alexander Quenga, 28, of Fresno

On March 5 2015, the Fresno Police Department helicopter Air 1 was illuminated by green laser light about six times over ten minutes. One crew member, who had been illuminated by lasers numerous times in the past, suffered temporary flashblindness, afterimages, a headache lasting several hours requiring pain medication, and dizziness. He said the beam was much brighter than in his past experience. The pilot had a momentary loss of night vision, and flew a wide orbit to avoid the beam. The pilot directed ground officers to the location.

However, a patrol car on the way to the suspect’s home was broadsided at an intersection by a Toyota 4Runner. The Jaws of Life were needed to rescue one of the officers. Both officers in the car were treated at a hospital for serious injuries. The officer driving was knocked unconscious, had upper body and leg injuries, and some chipped teeth. The passenger officer had a broken leg and a fracture in his back that may require surgery. (The 4Runner driver and passenger suffered minor injuries.)

Pic 2015-04-11 at 12.49.13 PM
The Fresno Police Department car that was broadsided on the way to arrest a man who aimed a laser pointer at an FPD helicopter. Two officers were seriously injured. Photo from YourCentralValley.com.

When officers finally reached Quenga’s home, they found he was listening to police department radio traffic. He said “he could hear everything the officers were saying and knew they were looking for him and [he] had possibly hidden the laser.” Quenga claimed the laser beam came from a house behind him. He further said he worked as a security guard and knew he could lose his job for misuse of a laser.

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US: UPDATED - Guilty plea for Fresno man who aimed 50 times at CHP airplane

A Fresno, California man who illuminated a California Highway Patrol plane up to 50 times pleaded guilty on June 3 2014. He will be sentenced August 25.

David Walter Fee, 22, was charged with aiming a powerful green laser pointer at Air 43, a CHP aircraft. The pilot suffered temporary blindness and the aircraft was forced to break away from investigating a burglary in progress. Also charged along with Fee was Andrew Zarate, 20, also of Fresno. The disposition of his case is not known.

Fee faces up to five years in prison and up to $250,000 in fines when sentenced.

The case was investigated by the FBI’s Fresno Office, California Highway Patrol, and Fresno Police Department. Assistant U.S. Attorneys Karen A. Escobar and Michael G. Tierney prosecuted the case.

From the Fresno Bee and the April 10 2014 U.S. Attorney’s Office press release about the indictment of Fee and Zarate.

UPDATED August 11 2014 - Zarate pleaded guilty to aiming a laser pointer at a California Highway Patrol airplane. He was scheduled to be sentenced November 3 2014. Fee pleaded guilty to the same offense in June and was scheduled to be sentenced August 25 2014. From an August 11 2014 U.S. Attorney’s Office press release about Zarate’s guilty plea.

UPDATED September 29 2014 - Fee was sentenced to 18 months in prison, plus two years of supervised release. From KMJ Now.

UPDATED November 3 2014 - Zarate was sentenced to one year in prison, plus two years of supervised release. From Ars Technica and ABC30.

US: UPDATED - California man sentenced to 14 years for aiming 65 mW laser at Fresno police helicopter

Sergio Patrick Rodriguez of Clovis, California, was sentenced March 10 2014 to 14 years in prison for interfering with an aircraft, plus 5 years in prison for aiming an $8.00 green laser pointer at an aircraft. The two sentences will be served concurrently; e.g. a maximum of 14 years. According to Rodriguez’s lawyer, he would serve a minimum of 12 years, factoring in a 15 percent sentence reduction for good behavior and a one-year credit for time served.

The 14-year sentence is the longest ever imposed for lasing an aircraft, anywhere in the world. Rodriguez’s lawyer unsuccessfully argued that a term of 57 months (4 3/4 years) would be “harsh, but ... is arguably a just punishment.” The previous longest sentence was 4 years for Jamie Allen Downie, sentenced in January 2010.

Sergio Patrick Rodriguez laser
Sergio Patrick Rodriguez

Federal sentencing guidelines take into account the crime itself as well as the defendant’s criminal history. U.S. District Judge Lawrence J. O’Neill said at sentencing that Rodriguez was “a walking crime spree.” Based on the government’s sentencing recommendation, 8 years of the sentence were imposed for the laser violation, and an additional 6 years were due to Rodriguez’s prior criminal history of gang affiliation and numerous probation violations.

A more detailed analysis of the 14-year sentence is here.

The Rodriguez case began August 25 2012 when a helicopter from the Children’s Hospital of Central California was illuminated by a green laser. Fresno Police Department’s Air 1 was sent to investigate.

It was repeatedly and deliberately struck by the light. The beam was traced back to Rodriguez, now 26, and his girlfriend, Jennifer Lorraine Coleman, 23. Pilots from both helicopters said the laser strikes caused significant visual interference.

The laser’s power was later measured as 65 milliwatts. This is 13 times the 5 mW limit for lasers marketed as “pointers” in the U.S. This 13x power increase leads to a 3.6 times increase in the distance at which Rodriguez’s laser was a hazard (see Note 1).

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US: Calif. man who "can't help himself from doing stupid things" sentenced to 21 months for lasing police helicopter

(The following is a press release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of California. It was also released by the FBI, Sacramento Division.)

Clovis Man Sentenced For Aiming Laser At Sheriff Helicopter

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE, Monday, January 27, 2014

Docket #: 1:13-CR-108 LJO

FRESNO, Calif. — Charles Conrad Mahaffey, 23, of Clovis, was sentenced today to 21 months in prison for aiming a laser pointer at a Fresno County Sheriff’s Office helicopter, U.S. Attorney Benjamin B. Wagner announced.

Mahaffey’s sentence follows his guilty plea last November. According to court documents, Mahaffey deliberately tracked and struck Eagle 1, a Fresno County Sheriff’s Office helicopter, with a powerful red laser while the aircraft was assisting ground units on a call for a domestic disturbance. As a result, the pilot was distracted by the intense light and forced to break away from the call. The pilot reported the laser strikes to Air Traffic Control at the Fresno Yosemite International Airport and, with the help of the Clovis Police Department, was able to locate the source of the laser and identify Mahaffey as the suspect. In pleading guilty, Mahaffey admitted he knew it was a crime to point the laser at an aircraft but stated he, “just can’t help himself from doing stupid things.”
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US: UPDATED - Two Calif. residents convicted of aiming a laser pointer at a police helicopter

A jury found two residents of Clovis, California guilty on December 20 2013 of aiming a laser pointer at a Fresno Police helicopter. In addition, one of the pair, 25-year-old Sergio Patrick Rodriguez, was also found guilty of attempting to interfere with the helicopter.

On August 25 2012, an emergency transport helicopter from the Children’s Hospital of Central California reported being illuminated by laser beams. The police helicopter was sent to investigate. They too were struck. Rodriguez and Jennifer Lorraine Coleman, 23, were located and arrested.

During the three-day December 2013 trial, pilots from both helicopters said that the laser strikes caused significant visual interference. Evidence presented indicated that the laser was “13 times more powerful than the permissible power emission level for hand-held laser devices.”

Sentencing was scheduled for March 10 2014. The interference charge has a penalty of up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. The aiming charges each have a penalty of up to 5 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

This case was the product of an investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, with assistance from the Clovis and Fresno Police Departments, Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”), and the National Institute of Standards and Technology of the U.S. Department of Commerce. Assistant United States Attorneys Karen A. Escobar and Michael G. Tierney prosecuted the case.

From KERO ABC. LaserPointerSafety.com previously covered the March 2013 indictment. The press release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of California is here.

UPDATED March 10 2014: Rodriguez was sentenced to 14 years in prison, on the charge of interfering with an aircrew. Coleman will be sentenced May 12 2014 and could receive up to five years on the aiming charge.

UPDATED June 24 2015: Rodriguez’s 14-year sentence for reckless endangerment was overturned by an appeals court, saying there was no evidence that he had harmful intent as required by the law.

Note from LaserPointerSafety.com: Assuming the article meant the laser was 13 times more powerful than the permissible power emission level for laser pointers, then the laser would have been 65 milliwatts. (The maximum for lasers marketed as “pointers” in the U.S. is 4.99 mW; there is no maximum for hand-held laser devices which are not marketed as pointers.) For a standard divergence of 1 milliradian, a 65 mW laser has the following hazard distances: It can be a nominal eye hazard up to 190 feet from the laser, causes flashblindness up to 890 feet away, causes interfering glare up to 4,000 feet away, and is a distraction up to 39,600 feet (7.5 miles) away.

US: UPDATED - 3 men, 1 woman indicted in 3 separate California incidents

On March 21 2013, a federal grand jury in California indicted four individuals who were involved in three separate incidents of aiming lasers at aircraft. In all three cases, charges were filed under both the 2012 Federal law making it illegal to aim pointers at aircraft or their flight path, and also under statutes making it illegal to interfere with the safe operation of an aircraft.

One of the defendants’ lawyers said the charges were overkill. KGET reported that David Torres, attorney for Brett Lee Scott, said “The penalty in the federal system with respect to this particular crime, doesn't fit at all. And, I think that when you look historically as to why this particular crime was enacted, it was enacted because of folks like Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda and folks that have these laser-guided missiles, things of that nature, where they didn't want folks pointing guided lasers up in the air, things of that nature. But, here you have teenagers doing this from time to time or other individuals who are unaware of what the law is.”

Indicted were:
  • Brett Lee Scott, 25, of Bakersfield CA. Alleged to have flashblinded sheriff’s office helicopter pilots for “minutes”, and causing disorientation. The laser strikes came over a 3-month period.
  • Sergio Patrick Rodriguez, aka Javier Rodrigues, 26, and his girlfriend, Jennifer Lorraine Coleman, 23, both of Clovis CA. Alleged to have deliberately targeted a medical helicopter from the Children’s Hospital Central California, as well as a police helicopter sent to investigate.
  • Charles Conrad Mahaffey, 22, of Clovis CA. Alleged to have aimed a red laser at a sheriff’s office helicopter, causing a law enforcement mission to be called off.

Additional details are in a press release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office, reprinted below (click the “Read More…” link).

From KGET and the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Eastern District of California

UPDATED November 4 2013: Charles Conrad Mahaffey pleaded guilty to the federal charge. He will be sentenced on January 27 2014.

UPDATED December 20 2013: Sergio Patrick Rodriguez was found guilty of attempting to interfere with a police helicopter. He and his girlfriend Jennifer Lorraine Coleman were also found guilty of aiming a laser pointer at the police helicopter. They will be sentenced March 10 2014.

UPDATED May 12 2014: Jennifer Lorraine Coleman was sentenced to two years in prison, to be followed by three years of supervised release. Brett Lee Scott pleaded guilty and will be sentenced July 21 2014. From the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of California
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