A federal judge ordered 26-year-old Sergio Rodriguez to spend the next 14 years in prison Monday for “lasing” a police helicopter as a national crackdown on people who point lasers at aircraft intensifies.
Rodriguez was arrested in 2012 and convicted in December 2013 of attempting to interfere with the operation of an aircraft, which comes with a maximum 20-year sentence. His girlfriend Jennifer Coleman, now 23, was convicted of pointing a laser at an aircraft, a federal crime established months before the Clovis, Calif., couple’s arrest that’s punishable by five years in prison. She will be sentenced May 12.
The 14-year sentence is one of the stiffest so far for “lasing” an aircraft.
Although it’s unclear if an airplane or helicopter has crashed as a result of being laser-flashed, pilots, the Federal Aviation Administration and the Federal Bureau of Investigation say the hand-held devices can temporarily blind pilots during landings and take-off, potentially causing a calamity.
The FBI announced in February a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of people who amuse themselves by pointing inexpensive store-bought laser pointers at an aircraft. At least 3,960 laser attacks were reported in 2013, the bureau said, part of a multiyear upswing in incidents.
Douglas Ralph, a Delta Air Lines captain, told U.S. News the FBI bounty - and subsequent prosecutions - would likely frighten “lasing” culprits and teens into complying with the law.
“After you start making some examples of these people, the incidents should decline,” he said.
Rodriguez’s attorney at trial, Dale Blickenstaff, tells U.S. News an appeal will be filed. If attempts to toss the conviction are unsuccessful, Rodriguez would likely face a minimum of 12 years behind bars, he says, factoring a 15 percent sentence reduction for good behavior and a one-year credit for time served.
A different attorney, however, is handling the appeal.
Rodriguez and Coleman were nabbed pointing a green laser beam at a police helicopter that was responding to a hospital transport helicopter’s report of a laser strike near the Fresno Yosemite International Airport.
U.S. District Court Judge Lawrence O’Neill called Rodriguez a "walking crime spree" at sentencing, citing probation violations and alleged gang ties.
Anti-lasing officials hailed the tough penalty as a victory.
“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,” said Monica Miller, special agent in charge at the FBI’s Sacramento field office.
“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,” Miller said.
“We applaud law enforcement agencies and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for their efforts to combat this serious problem,” said FAA Administrator Michael Huerta in a statement.
Despite the relative length of Rodriguez's sentence, other sanctions have been no a slap on the wrist.
Michael Smith, 30, of Omaha, Neb., was sentenced in July 2013 to two years in prison for pointing a laser at a police helicopter that was investigating a Southwest Airlines pilot’s laser sighting. Adam Gardenhire of North Hollywood, Calif., 18 at the time of his arrest, was sentenced to 30 months in prison in March 2013 after pleading guilty to pointing a laser at an airplane and a responding police helicopter. And Glenn Hansen of Saint Cloud, Fla., was sentenced to six months in prison in August 2012 for pointing a laser at multiple planes.