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US: Analysis of Sergio Rodriguez's 14-year sentence for lasing Fresno police helicopter

The following is an analysis by LaserPointerSafety.com of the 14-year prison sentence given to Sergio Patrick Rodriguez on March 10 2014, for interfering with a police helicopter by hitting it with a laser beam about seven times.

Prior to this, the longest sentence anywhere in the world for a laser/aircraft incident was four years,
handed down in January 2010 to Jamie Allen Downie. For more information, see the page Sentences for laser offenses and click the tags on the left side to find jail terms of 0-6 months, 7-12 months, 13-24 months, 25-36 months, 37-48 months, and over 4 years.

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.


Based on the government’s sentencing recommendation, 8 years of Rodriguez’s 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.

In addition, the government told the judge that “[s]entencing Rodriguez to a substantial prison term will send an important deterrent message that could not be more timely.”

The government stated at one point that Rodriguez should receive 20 years to life imprisonment based on its analysis, but they would be satisfied with 14 years.

Rodriguez’s lawyer countered that the guidelines had been misapplied and the sentence should be only 57 months (4 3/4 years). The lawyer contended that Rodriguez was in his backyard, playing with the laser to see how far it could go and he had no knowledge of laser/aircraft hazards.

How sentencing guidelines work

A primary goal of federal guidelines is to have sentences across the country be consistent. A key part of this is a “sentencing table,” which can be seen here on Wikipedia. The table takes into account the severity of the crime, plus the defendant’s criminal history, to determine the final sentencing range

Judges have discretion to override the government’s sentencing recommendation. If they do so, they must provide written justification. (In Rodriguez’s case, the judge accepted the government’s recommended 14-year sentence.)

Initial prosecution recommendation

(Full document available here)

On Rodriguez’s “interference with an aircraft” charge, the prosecution set a base offense level of 30 (on a 1-43 scale). This high level was based on his “intentionally” pointing the laser so as to endanger the safety of the police helicopter.

For persons without a criminal history, an offense level of 30 means a recommended sentence of 97-121 months (8 to 10 years). Since Rodriguez had a criminal history category of VI -- the highest level -- the recommendation rose to 168 - 210 months (14 to 17.5 years).

Thus, 8 years of the sentence were due to the laser offense itself, and 6 additional years were due to Rodriguez’s criminal history.

In addition, the government sought a “four-level dangerous weapon enhancement” because the 65 mW laser was “capable of inflicting death or serious bodily injury” due to creating distraction, glare, and afterimage for pilots, and also “significant ocular hazards.”

Finally, the government aded a “six-level official victim enhancement” for “creating a substantial risk of serious bodily injury” to a law enforcement officer.

Adding the two enhancements resulted in a total offense level of 40 (normally 292-365 months) plus the criminal history category of VI which came to a total of 360 months to life imprisonment.

Although the “resulting guideline range” should be 360 months to life, prosecutors told the judge that “the government does not object, however, to a below-guideline and recommended sentence of 168 months [14 years], as a reasonable sentence in this case.”

Rodriguez’s reasons for a lower sentence

(Full document available here)

In a 7-page reply, Rodriguez’s lawyer objected to the government setting the base offense level at 30. This is for “crimes involving the use of nuclear or chemical weapons, firearms, murder or assault.” He said the base should be 9, doubled to 18 because the jury found “the offense involved recklessly endangering the safety of .. an aircraft.”

He wrote, “Moreover, the basic facts support the lower offense level. The evidence adduced at trial disclosed both adults and children handled and pointed the laser at one time or another during the evening in question.... There was testimony that the family considered the laser a play thing and not a weapon. Each of the Defendants told officers they were trying to see how far the laser would reach. No average person -- certainly not one as unsophisticated as Mr. Rodriguez -- would be sufficiently familiar with laser physics to know the properties of a laser and its beam. Nor could anyone be reasonably expected to know that the curvature of the helicopter cockpit glass refracts the light causing it to fill the entire cockpit. Mr. Rodriguez had no idea that the deceptively ordinary laser his wife purchased for less than $8.00 was powerful enough to distract and cause problems for a pilot flying a helicopter.”

Rodriguez’s lawyer stated that 168 months (14 years) was greater than necessary for punishment and deterrence. He said that 57 months (4 3/4 years) would be sufficient “to reflect the seriousness of the offense because no one has ever gotten a greater sentence for pointing a laser at an aircraft. Such a sentence [57 months] is still harsh, but it is arguably a just punishment under these facts.” He called 14 years “shocking”.

The lawyer also pointed out other laser-aiming cases with far lower sentences. One was Adam Gardenhire, sentenced to 30 months. Gerard Sasso was sentenced to 36 months for a more powerful 240 mW laser (3.7 times Rodriguez’s 65 mW laser). Other nearby cases resulted in 18 months, 24 months and 21 months.

Rebuttal of the government

(Full document available here)

The government replied that they had proven “not only reckless disregard for the safety of human life but an attempt to willfully interfere with or disable” the police helicopter pilots. “The fact that the laser strikes did not cause actual damage or that the aircraft did not crash”, does not mean that it was not endangered. “‘Endangerment’ means a threatened or potential harm and does not require proof of actual harm.”

Prosecutors supported 168 months given “(a) the severity of the offense, use of a dangerous laser beam, and the tracking and striking of two separate aircraft, (b) the defendant’s significant criminal history, (c) his history of probation violations, (d) history and offense conduct involving reckless disregard of human life, (e) Bulldog gang affiliation, and (f) the fact that the guideline range based on the application of official victim and dangerous weapon enhancements trigger a guideline range of 360 months to life in prison.”

They also noted that, even if the base offense level was dropped to Rodriguez’s suggested 18 (instead of 30), the guideline range would not be 57 months but would be 140-175 months. This is because of the application of the dangerous weapon and official victim witness enhancements. They noted that a 168 month sentence would fall within this range.

The prosecution then analyzed how other laser/aircraft cases differed from Rodriguez’s. For example, Gardenhire’s case used a different charge which had a maximum of 5 years in prison. (Rodriguez was found guilty not only of the 5-year charge but also of interference which has a maximum 20-year penalty.) Similarly, they analyzed other cases to highlight differences from Rodriguez’s situation.

Finally, the government said that this is an “important deterrent message that could not be more timely” because “[i]t is only a matter of time before an aircraft crashes as the result of a laser strike.”

Analysis based on the original Department of Justice sentencing memo, a response by Rodriguez’s lawyer, and the DOJ’s rebuttal to the lawyer’s arguments.

UPDATE 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