A California man was sentenced to 14 years in prison for pointing a store-bought green laser at two helicopters. The seemingly harsh sentence is part of a federal effort to stop a laser-pointing epidemic.
Sergio Patrick Rodriguez, 26, and his girlfriend, Jennifer Lorraine Coleman, 23, pointed a high-powered laser pointer at the cockpits of a Fresno police helicopter and hospital transport helicopter near the Fresno Yosemite International Airport in the summer of 2012. Pilots testified that the laser interfered with their vision.
Two years later, Rodriguez will pay for his prank with 14 years of jail time, U.S. District Judge Lawrence J. O’Neill decided. The longest sentence anyone in the region ever received for a similar crime was three years and one month, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of California.
Rodriguez’ harsh sentence comes as part of a nationwide crackdown on aircraft “lasing.” The FBI in February announced a new “regional reward program” to incentivize people to report aircraft lasing with the offer of $10,000 in exchange for information.
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“Lasing aircraft is not a joke or a casual prank,” said Federal Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Monica Miller, who handled the Rodriguez case. “It is reckless behavior that can have fatal consequences for air crew, passengers and the public on the ground. Rodriguez’s sentence clearly demonstrates the seriousness of his actions.”
According to the Federal Aviation Administration, there were about 11 “lasing” incidents each day in 2013. Low-flying police and medical helicopters are the most common victims.
Rodriguez’ lawyer, Dale A. Blickenstaff, who fought for a five-year sentence, said that 14 years seemed too harsh but was “arguably just punishment under these facts."
Rodriguez’ girlfriend will be tried in May on one count of laser pointing with a possible sentence of five years in prison.