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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).

Rodriguez was found guilty on December 20 2013 of Attempted Interference with Persons Engaged in the Operation of an Aircraft, which carries a maximum 20-year prison term, and of Aiming a Laser Pointer at an Aircraft or the Flight Path of an Aircraft, which has a maximum 5-year penalty. In addition, his then-girlfriend Jennifer Lorraine Coleman was found guilty of one count under the “aiming” law. She will be sentenced May 12 2014.

From the Monterey Herald, US News and World Report, and information provided by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of California. For more details, see the press release below from the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

UPDATED May 12 2014: Coleman was sentenced to two years in prison, to be followed by three years of supervised release, for aiming a laser pointer at a law enforcement aircraft. From KERO

UPDATED May 21 2014: An extensively researched article goes into depth about the Rodriguez and Coleman cases, the length of the sentences, and their intended deterrent effect. From Ars Technica

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 1: A 1 milliradian beam from a 5 milliwatt green laser pointer is an eye hazard from the laser up to 52 feet away, is a flashblindness hazard up to 245 feet away, is a glare hazard up to 1,097 feet, and is a distraction up to 10,966 feet. The hazard distances for Rodriguez’s 65 milliwatt laser are 3.6 times as great. It is an eye hazard up to 187 feet, a flashblindness hazard up to 884 feet, a glare hazard up to 3,954 feet, and a distraction up to 39,539 feet.

The reason a laser 13 times as powerful (65 mW vs. 5 mW) increases the hazard distance only 3.6 times is because the light spread is not linear (one dimensional) but is an area function (two dimensional). This means that the hazard distance increase (3.6x) is the square root of the power increase (13x).


United States Attorney Benjamin B. Wagner, Eastern District Of California

Laser Striker Sentenced To 14 Years In Prison, Believed To Be The Longest Sentence In A Laser-Strike Case

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE, Monday, March 10, 2014

www.usdoj.gov/usao/cae usacae.edcapress@usdoj.gov

Docket #: 1:13-CR-109 LJO

FRESNO, Calif. — Sergio Patrick Rodriguez, 26, of Clovis, Calif., was sentenced today to 14 years in prison for aiming a laser pointer at Fresno police helicopter Air 1, and attempting to interfere with its operation, United States Attorney Benjamin B. Wagner announced. Calling him a “walking crime spree,” United States District Judge Lawrence J. O'Neill said the crime was serious with potentially deadly consequences.

Rodriguez and his girlfriend, Jennifer Lorraine Coleman, 23, were both convicted by a federal jury after a three–day trial in Fresno in December 2013.

According to evidence presented at trial, Rodriguez and Coleman used a high-powered green laser pointer to repeatedly strike the cockpit of Air 1 during a clear summer night in 2012. Air 1 had responded to the apartment complex where Rodriguez and Coleman resided near the Fresno Yosemite International Airport to investigate the report of laser strikes on Air George, an emergency transport helicopter for Children’s Hospital of Central California. The laser pointer that Rodriguez and Coleman used was 13 times more powerful than the permissible power emission level for hand-held laser devices. The crew members of both Air 1 and Air George testified that the laser strikes caused significant visual interference.

In imposing the sentence, Judge O’Neill considered not only the severity of the offenses but Rodriguez’s significant criminal history, numerous probation violations, and Bulldog gang affiliation. In addition, Dr. Leon McLin, a Senior Research Optometrist for the Air Force Research Laboratory who testified at trial, indicated at sentencing that the laser pointer that Rodriguez used was an instrument capable of inflicting serious bodily injury and, indirectly, death due to a high potential for crash caused by visual interference.

“We in federal law enforcement understand the dangers posed by laser strikes on aircraft,” U.S. Attorney Wagner stated. “This is not a game. It is dangerous, and it is a felony. Those who aim lasers at aircraft should know that we will seek to convict them, and we will seek to send them to prison. The safety of aircraft and the people in them demands no less.”

“Lasing aircraft is not a joke or a casual prank. It is reckless behavior that can have fatal consequences for air crew, passengers and the public on the ground,” said Special Agent in Charge Monica M. Miller of the FBI’s Sacramento field office. “Rodriguez’s sentence clearly demonstrates the seriousness of his actions and that the FBI will work with its law enforcement partners to locate and arrest those who engage in dangerous, improper use of hand-held lasers that puts us all at risk.”

“Deliberately pointing a laser at an aircraft is a criminal act with serious safety repercussions,” said FAA Administrator Michael Huerta. “We applaud law enforcement agencies and the U.S. Attorney's Office for their efforts to combat this serious problem.”

This case is the product of an investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation with assistance from the Clovis and Fresno Police Departments, the Federal Aviation Administration, 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 are prosecuting the case.

Sentencing for co-defendant Coleman is set for May 12, 2014. She faces a maximum statutory penalty of five years in prison and a $250,000. The actual sentence, however, will be determined at the discretion of the court after consideration of any applicable statutory factors and the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, which take into account a number of variables.

According to the FAA, there were 3,960 reports of people shining lasers at aircraft in the United States in 2013. The Eastern District of California, which encompasses 34 counties in the eastern portion of California, reported 94 laser strikes, with the largest number of laser incidents reported by the Fresno Yosemite International Airport and Bakersfield Meadows Field Airport. Law enforcement and emergency transport helicopters are particularly vulnerable, since they typically fly at lower altitudes. Their convex-shaped windows also cause greater refraction and visual interference when the beam of a laser strikes. Night-vision goggles can also amplify the beam and pose a greater threat of visual interference.

On February 11, 2014, in 12 cities, the FBI, in collaboration with the Air Line Pilots Association International and the FAA, announced the Laser Threat Awareness campaign, a nationwide effort to alert the public to the threat that aircraft laser illumination poses and the penalties for such activity. The FBI will offer up to $10,000 for information leading to the arrest of any individual who intentionally aims a laser at an aircraft. If you have information about a laser strike, contact your local FBI office. Tips can also be submitted online at https://tips.fbi.gov. If you see someone pointing a laser at an aircraft, call 911.