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US: Appeals court says 30-month sentence for aiming laser at aircraft is too long; defendent did not know of laser risk

A federal appeals court in California struck down a 30-month sentence given to Adam Gardenhire in March 2013 for aiming a laser pointer at an Cessna jet and police helicopter. Gardenhire was 18 at the time of the March 2012 laser strikes. The April 30 2015 decision by three judges of the Ninth Circuit found that prosecutors had not presented evidence of “reckless endangerment” of aircraft.

Adam Gardenhire laser
Gardenhire’s photo on Facebook, according to the blog LA Weekly.com


The judges sent the case back to the U.S. district court in Los Angeles for a new sentencing hearing under a new judge. Under the original sentencing guidelines, Gardenhire had been recommended for 27 to 33 months in prison taking into account the reckless endangerment charge, or 4 to 10 months in prison without the charge.

The appeals court noted that, prior to the March 2013 laser incident, a friend of Gardenhire said that shining a laser beam into another person’s eye could lead to blindness. The appeals court then went on to say that information was different from “knowing that a laser beam can be distracting to pilots who are both enclosed in a cockpit and at least 2,640 feet away. Nor did the government submit any evidence of what even an average person would know about the effects of aiming a laser beam at an aircraft…. 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.”

The court specifically referred to the lack of any notice, label or other information regarding the risk of aiming a laser pointer at an aircraft: “Gardenhire heeded the only warning he was given—not to shine the laser directly in anyone’s eyes—and he was not immediately alerted to any additional risks he was creating by aiming the beam at an aircraft.”

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US: UPDATED - 30 month sentence for California teen Adam Gardenhire

Adam Gardenhire, 19, was sentenced to 30 months in federal prison on March 25 2013, for aiming a “commercial grade” green laser pointer at an airplane and a police helicopter in California. The crime has a maximum prison term of up to five years. Federal sentencing guidelines recommended an 18-24 month penalty, but U.S. DIstrict Judge Stephen Wilson said he wanted to send a message that Gardenhire’s behavior was “reckless and very dangerous.”

As of March 25, Gardenhire remains free on bond pending an appeal hearing in April 2013.

Adam Gardenhire laser
Gardenhire’s photo on Facebook, according to the blog LA Weekly.com


On March 29 2012, the North Hollywood teenager aimed a laser beam from his backyard at a Cessna that was landing at Bob Hope Airport in Burbank. The pilot had vision problems lasting about a day, after being lased multiple times in the eye. The Pasadena Police Department sent a helicopter to investigate. Gardenhire again aimed at the craft, hitting the pilot six times. The pilot had protective equipment and was not injured.

Pic 2012-04-02 at 9.41.32 AM
Gardenhire lased the aircraft from his backyard (A) about 1.5 miles from the airport (black square).


According to his attorney, Gardenhire was unaware of the hazard: “[He] had no idea that the deceptively ordinary laser he had borrowed from a friend was powerful enough to be seen by, much less distract, a pilot thousands of feet away…. [A] severe sentence would be disproportionate to the conduct.”

However, Assistant U.S. Attorney Melissa Mills said Gardenhire told FBI agents that the friend who loaned him the laser told him not to shine it at anyone’s eyes because it would blind people. She said Gardenhire telling the FBI he didn't think about the dangers doesn't mean he wasn't aware of the dangers and responsible for the consequences.

"One can imagine a drunk driver making the same excuse - that he just 'didn't think about the dangers' of getting behind the wheel in an impaired state. But disregarding a clear risk does not absolve one of responsibility for assuming it," Mills said, according to the Pasadena Star-News.

Gardenhire was arrested in April 2012. He was the second person indicted under the Feb. 2012 federal law making it illegal to aim at an aircraft or the flight path of an aircraft. (The first person was Orlando resident Glenn Stephen Hansen.) He and pleaded guilty in October 2012. He could have been sentenced to up to five years in prison under the federal law. U.S. District Judge Stephen Wilson said in court that he sentenced Gardenhire to 30 months so as to send a message to other people.

From CNN, Pasadena Star-News, Los Angeles Daily News, Wired and Burbank Leader. LaserPointerSafety.com previously covered this story in March 2012 when the initial incident was reported, and in April 2012 when Gardenhire was indicted.

US: UPDATED - Calif. teen charged under new federal law; faces 10 year prison term

Adam Gardenhire, 18, was charged on April 18 2012 with lasing a Cessna Citation jet and a Pasadena police helicopter on March 29, as previously reported on LaserPointerSafety.com. He was charged with two federal counts of aiming a “commercial-grade”* green laser pointer at an aircraft, under a provision of the FAA reauthorization legislation signed by President Barack Obama in mid-February 2012. According to news reports, this is the second U.S. case where a person has been charged under the new law. The first person was Orlando resident Glenn Stephen Hansen.

Gardenhire had been arrested on state charges at his North Hollywood home about two hours after the March 29 lasing, and had been free on bail while the FBI and other authorities worked on the federal indictment. Each federal count carries a maximum prison term of 5 years, so Gardenhire faces a total of 10 years in prison. He could also be charged under a separate FAA civil suit for interference with an aircraft.

Adam Gardenhire laser
Gardenhire’s photo on Facebook, according to the blog LA Weekly.com


A post on Gardenhire’s Facebook page just before the federal charge said he was going to the Twin Towers Correctional Facility in LA: “Twin towers tomorrow... Not looking forward !!!:/ whats poppin though?=)”. A post afterwards said “There on to me o.O”. On Facebook, he stated his Activity as “graffing” (complex graffiti) and his Interests as “Bitches and hoes”.

From 89.3 KPCC, the Glendale News, the Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly.com, and 7th Space Interactive.

*The term “commercial-grade” is not a standard term in the laser field. An FBI spokeswoman told LaserPointerSafety.com that the term “was not a technical description but one to differentiate between a small personal laser one might use for an office presentation, as opposed to the kind used in the attack, which might be used for the grand opening of a department store or other commercial enterprise.” It is surprising to LaserPointerSafety.com that a teenager would have such a laser, which would require wall power (110 VAC) and would be bulky and thus harder to aim at an aircraft. We are trying to get more details.

UPDATED, October 29 2012: Gardenhire pleaded guilty to deliberately aiming at multiple aircraft. Sentencing was set for January 2013. From the Burbank Leader.

UPDATED March 26 2013: Gardenhire was sentenced to 30 months in federal prison. The judge said he wanted to send a message to others. More details are in a LaserPointerSafety.com story.

US: UPDATED - Calif. teen lases private jet, then police helicopter

A teenager on March 29 2012 aimed a green laser first at a private jet landing at Burbank’s Bob Hope Airport, then at a Pasadena police helicopter looking for the laser source. The 18-year-old was quickly located and arrested in North Hollywood, about 1.5 miles from the airport. He admitted aiming the laser at aircraft.

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The teen was arrested at a location (A) about 1.5 miles from the airport (black square).


The jet was illuminated twice while on approach to the airport. The helicopter was hit approximately six times. There were no injuries, or adverse effects on airport operations.

The teen’s name was withheld pending an FBI investigation.

From the Burbank Leader and North Hollywood Patch

UPDATED April 19 2012: Adam Gardenhire, 18, was charged on April 18 2012 with two federal counts of aiming a laser at an aircraft, in violation of a new law that took effect in mid-February. The teen faces up to 10 years in prison. More details are in a LaserPointerSafety.com story.

UPDATED March 26 2013: Gardenhire was sentenced to 30 months in federal prison. The judge said he wanted to send a message to others. More details are in a LaserPointerSafety.com story.