Digital Version of November/December 2014 Print Edition
Four indicted in California under new federal law on laser strikes
Four people in California face stiff prison terms and fines under a newly-enacted federal law against pointing laser devices at aircraft.
A federal grand jury in Fresno, CA, returned three indictments on March 21 charging three men and a woman under a new federal statute aimed at curbing increasingly common incidents of “lasing” aircraft in flight. The law used to charge the defendants is part of legislation signed into law in 2012 by President Obama making it a federal crime to knowingly aim the beam of a laser pointer at an aircraft. The offense carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. The indictments mark the first time such charges have been brought in the Eastern District of California, a district that covers 34 counties in the eastern portion of California.
“Lasing” helicopters and aircraft has become a dangerous trend in the last few years, as laser technology, primarily laser pointers, has become less expensive and more readily available to the public. According to a statement from the FBI, there were 3,482 aircraft laser strikes reported in the U.S. in 2012, averaging 10 strikes a day. So far this year, the agency said laser strikes have increased up to 11 strikes a day. The focused beams of a laser can cause temporary, but dangerous, glare, flash blindness, and after-images for aircraft crew in the beams’ path.
The charges were brought in three separate incidents in the eastern California district and the defendants in the cases face a maximum prison term of 20 years as to each charge of interfering with the safe operation of an aircraft and a maximum prison term of five years as to each charge of pointing a laser at an aircraft.
In the indictment, Brett Lee Scott, 25, of Bakersfield, was charged with four counts of aiming a laser pointer at a Kern County Sheriff helicopter. He was also charged with four counts of attempting to interfere with the safe operation of the aircraft, an offense covered under the U.S. Patriot Act that carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
According to court records, Scott allegedly used two different laser pointers to strike the helicopter with powerful green and purple laser beams multiple times during four separate incidents over a three-month period. As a result of the laser strikes, the pilots suffered flash blindness that lasted a few minutes, causing disorientation. The pilots were able to pinpoint the origin of the beams and, with the help of patrol deputies, identified Scott as a suspect, said the documents.
Sergio Patrick Rodriguez, 26, and his girlfriend, Jennifer Lorraine Coleman, 23, both of Clovis, CA, were charged with two counts of aiming a laser pointer at Air George, an emergency transport ambulance of Children’s Hospital Central California, and a Fresno Police Department helicopter. They were also charged with conspiring to interfere with the safe operation of the helicopters and two counts of attempting to interfere with their safe operation. Prosecutors allege Scott and Coleman deliberately targeted Air George while it was en route to transport a patient to Children’s Hospital. According to the indictment, they again targeted the Fresno police helicopter as it circled their apartment complex, responding to the report of the laser attack on Air George.
Charles Conrad Mahaffey, 22, of Clovis, was charged with one count of aiming a laser pointer at a Fresno County Sheriff helicopter, and one count of attempting to interfere with the safe operation of the helicopter. According to court records, the sheriff’s helicopter was helping ground units on a call when it was struck by a powerful red laser and was forced to call off its mission. With the help of the Clovis Police Department, the pilot was able to locate the source of the laser and identify Mahaffey as the suspect, records said.