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US: 366 days in prison for interfering with patrol helicopter

Robert Duane Nighswander, 44, of Orland, California, was sentenced to one year and one day in prison, to be followed by three years of supervised release, for using a laser to interfere with an aircraft.

On October 21 2009, the California Highway Patrol was conducting a felony traffic stop near Nighswander’s home. Two CHP officers, both licensed pilots, were providing aerial support in a helicopter approximately 700 feet above the ground. Nighswander pointed a green laser device with a range of up to seven miles at the pilots to see if they would react. He pointed the laser at the helicopter no fewer than four times, affecting the pilots’ vision and ability to control the craft. Fortunately, the pilots were affected at separate times, kept the helicopter in the air, and identified the source of the laser.
Both pilots reported being unable to see during portions of their flight, and one reported a lingering headache severe enough to render him unable to pilot an aircraft for several hours after the incident. Officers on the ground then confronted Nighswander who admitted pointing his laser at the helicopter and directed officers to where he had hidden the laser in his garage.

During the September 28 2010 sentencing, Nighswander apologized to the California Highway Patrol and its officers for endangering the flight. He agreed with Judge John A. Mendez’s observation that he could have killed someone.

In determining that a sentence of one year and one day was appropriate, Judge Mendez noted Nighswander’s near lifetime drug addiction and Nighswander’s significant steps in battling and overcoming that addiction following his arrest, as well as his prompt and continuing acknowledgment that his actions were dangerous and stupid. Nighswander is expected to begin serving his sentence in December 2010.

This case is the product of a joint investigation by the California Highway Patrol, the Federal Air Marshals and the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force. Assistant United States Attorney Matthew D. Segal prosecuted the case.

From a U.S. Department of Justice press release