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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.”
“Shining a hand-held laser at an aircraft in flight is a serious, illegal act that puts both air crew and the public on the ground at serious risk,” said Special Agent in Charge Monica M. Miller of the Sacramento division of the FBI. “Hand-held lasers are well labeled to inform owners of their potential risk to health and safety, cautioning owners against improper use. Ignorance is no excuse for such reckless action and we are committed to working with our law enforcement partners to locate and identify individuals who have total disregard for life and safety.”

“The Fresno County Sheriff’s Office Air Support Unit provides critical support to the public and to all law enforcement agencies in the region,” stated Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims. “The illegal use of a laser creates a severe danger to our deputies in the helicopter and in turn, the public at large. This crime could have had disastrous results.”

Laser beams pose a serious safety hazard to flight operations. The focused beams of a laser remain powerful at extended viewing distances and can expose pilots and their crew members and passengers to radiation levels above those considered to be flight safe. Brief exposure to even a relatively low-powered laser beam can cause discomfort and temporary visual impairments such as glare, flash blindness and after images. Prolonged exposure to high-powered laser beams can and has resulted in permanent eye injury. In 2013, there were 3,960 laser illumination incidents reported to the Federal Aviation Administration, an average of 10.85 strikes per day. Airports in the 34 counties of the Eastern District of California reported 94 laser strikes in 2013, or more than seven laser illumination incidents per month. The Fresno Yosemite International Airport and Meadows Field Airport reported the highest number of laser illuminations followed by the Sacramento International Airport.

This case was the product of an investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Clovis Police Department, and Fresno County Sheriff’s Office. Assistant U.S. Attorney Karen A. Escobar prosecuted the case.