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Sentence Doesn't Fit the Laser-Pointed Crime, 9th Rules

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. | Last updated on

A California high school student won't be going to prison for 30 months for shooting a laser pointer at a small aircraft, the Ninth Circuit ruled on Thursday. Adam Gardenhire, the kid who shined his friend's laser pointer at a Cessna airplane as it approached L.A.'s Burbank Airport in 2012, wasn't reckless, the court said, since he lacked knowledge of the risks he was creating.

Gardenhire will now face no more than ten months for his crime of endangering an aircraft. That should give him plenty of extra time to use lasers as they're intended -- to trick cats.

Blinded by the Light

Gardenhire had been given the laser pointer by a friend, who warned him not to shine it in anyone's eye, lest it blind them. Instead, he later turned the laser up towards the sky, shinning it at a small private jet approaching the L.A. airport. Gardenhire apparently had good aim, as well. The laser hit the pilot in the eye, momentarily blinding him. When a police helicopter was sent out to find the source of the laser, Gardenhire shined it again, directing the police right to his home.

When the FBI contacted Gardenhire, he admitted to shinning the light at the planes, but had no idea that he had hit them. He was charged with aiming a laser pointer at an aircraft, one of the rarer federal laws. That law was brand new, enacted just six weeks before his crime, and had no corresponding sentencing guidelines. The pre-sentencing report recommended applying an analogous guideline for interfering with a flight crew member. The district court went beyond this, sentencing Gardenhire to a total of 30 months in prison, plus three years of probation of recklessly endangering the aircraft.

Stupid Yes, Reckless No

That finding of recklessness was unsupported by the facts, the Ninth Circuit found. There is, the court noted, no evidence that Gardenhire knew the consequences of the beam strike. Though his friend warned him against blinding people with the laser, that does not mean that Gardenhire was aware that there was a risk of blindness at such great distance.

Since the government did not prove that Gardenhire knew that firing the laser at an airport from the ground was dangerous, the recklessness enhancement to the setting could not apply.

In so ruling, they joined the First Circuit, which has similarly held that intentional acts which happen to endanger aircraft are not enough to prove willfulness. Consciousness of risk is necessary to meet the mens rea requirement.

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