Pointing a laser at a police helicopter got a California man a 14-year prison sentence, which federal officials and pilots hope will discourage the threat to airline safety.
Sergio Rodriguez, 26, of Clovis, was sentenced Monday for pointing a laser at a Fresno police helicopter, according to U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner. Rodriguez and his girlfriend, Jennifer Coleman, 23, were both convicted by a federal jury after a three–day trial in December.
Laser strikes are a concern for airliners because they can temporarily blind a pilot while landing or taking off. The number of laser strikes against aircraft has climbed sharply in the last decade, reaching 3,960 incidents last year.
"This is not a game. It is dangerous, and it is a felony," Wagner said. "Those who aim lasers at aircraft should know that we will seek to convict them, and we will seek to send them to prison. The safety of aircraft and the people in them demands no less."
Coleman's sentencing is scheduled May 12.
According to evidence presented at trial, Rodriguez and Coleman used a high-powered green laser pointer to repeatedly strike the helicopter cockpit during a clear summer night in 2012. The helicopter known as Air 1 responded to their apartment complex near Fresno Yosemite International Airport to investigate laser strikes on an emergency helicopter for Children's Hospital of Central California.
The Air Line Pilots Association, a union representing 50,000 pilots, issued a statement praising the prosecution and sentence, which it said "will help send the message to others that intentionally aiming a laser at aircraft is not a prank, but a federal crime with very serious consequences."
Leon McLin, a senior research optometrist for the Air Force Research Laboratory who testified at trial, indicated at sentencing that the laser pointer that Rodriguez used was capable of inflicting serious bodily injury and, indirectly, death due to a high potential for crash caused by visual interference.
A person on the ground can aim a laser pointer, which can cost as little as $50, into the cockpit of a plane or helicopter. The cockpit glass diffuses the light, which pilots complain is like a flashbulb going off and temporarily hurting their vision at a critical time of taking off or landing a plane.
Last month, the FBI began offering rewards up to $10,000 for information leading to the conviction of someone aiming a laser at a plane. The ALPA is working with the FAA to promote the campaign with public-service announcements, billboards and press releases focused in 12 cities. They are: Albuquerque; Chicago; Cleveland; Houston; Los Angeles; New York; Philadelphia; Phoenix; Sacramento; San Antonio; San Juan, Puerto Rico; and Washington.