Today, United States District Judge Lawrence J. O'Neill sentenced Jennifer Lorraine Coleman, 24, of Clovis, to two years in prison, to be followed by three years of supervised release, for aiming a laser pointer at a law enforcement aircraft, and Brett Lee Scott, 26, of Bakersfield, entered a guilty plea to the same crime, United States Attorney Benjamin B. Wagner announced.
Coleman and her boyfriend, Sergio Patrick Rodriguez, 26, of Clovis, were both convicted by a federal jury after a three–day trial in Fresno in December 2013.
“Coleman and Rodriguez demonstrated outrageous and willful disregard for the safety of aviators, Air George’s patients, and the public,” said Special Agent in Charge Monica M. Miller of the Sacramento FBI. “The FBI and our state and local law enforcement partners are committed to locating, identifying , and arresting individuals who intentionally shine lasers at aircraft aloft, recklessly jeopardizing the safety of the communities we serve.”
According to evidence presented at trial, Coleman and Rodriguez used a high‑powered green laser pointer to repeatedly strike the cockpit of a Fresno Police helicopter, Air 1, during a clear summer night in 2012. Air 1 had responded to the apartment complex where Coleman and Rodriguez lived near the Fresno Yosemite International Airport, to investigate the report of laser strikes on Air George, an emergency transport helicopter for Children’s Hospital of Central California. The laser pointer that Coleman and Rodriguez used was 13 times more powerful than the permissible power emission level for hand-held laser devices. The crew members of both Air 1 and Air George testified that the laser strikes caused significant visual interference.
In imposing sentence, Judge O’Neill considered the opinion of Dr. Leon McLin, a Senior Research Optometrist for the Air Force Research Laboratory who testified at trial, that the laser pointer that Coleman used was an instrument capable of inflicting serious bodily injury and, indirectly, death due to a high potential for crash caused by visual interference.
Judge O'Neill found the high‑powered laser pointer was a dangerous weapon, and referring to the potential for a crash resulting from the pilots’ impaired vision stated, "I physically shudder to think of what could have happened."
The Coleman case was the product of an investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, with assistance from the Clovis and Fresno Police Departments, Federal Aviation Administration, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology of the U.S. Department of Commerce. Assistant United States Attorneys Karen A. Escobar and Michael G. Tierney prosecuted the case.
In a separate laser case, Scott pleaded guilty to aiming a laser pointer at a Kern County Sheriff helicopter, also known as Air-1. Scott acknowledged that he used two different laser pointers to strike Air-1 over a six-month period. The lasers emitted powerful green and purple laser beams. As a result, the pilots of Air-1 suffered flash blindness that lasted a few minutes, causing disorientation. The pilots were ultimately able to pinpoint the origin of the beams and, with the help of patrol deputies, identified Scott as a suspect.
Sentencing for Scott is set for July 21, 2014. He faces a maximum statutory penalty of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine for aiming a laser pointer at Air-1. The actual sentence, however, will be determined at the discretion of the court after consideration of any applicable statutory factors and the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, which take into account a number of variables.
The case against Scott was the result of a joint investigation conducted by the FBI and Kern County Sheriff’s Office. Assistant U.S. Attorney Karen A. Escobar is prosecuting this case.
According to the FAA, there were 3,960 reports of people shining lasers at aircraft in the United States in 2013. In the Eastern District of California, which encompasses 34 counties in the eastern portion of California, reported 94 laser strikes, with the largest number of laser incidents reported by the Fresno Yosemite International Airport and Bakersfield Meadows Field Airport. Law enforcement and emergency transport helicopters are particularly vulnerable, since they typically fly at lower altitudes. Their convex-shaped windows also cause greater refraction and visual interference when the beam of a laser strikes. Night-vision goggles can also amplify the beam and pose a greater threat of visual interference.
Earlier this year, as a result of the increasing threat of laser strikes on aircraft, the FBI in Sacramento, along with several other cities in the United States that have reported a large number of laser incidents, launched a public awareness campaign regarding the issue and offered a $10,000 reward for information that leads to the arrest of a laser offender. Since the launch of the public awareness campaign, the FBI reports a decrease in the number of laser incidents.
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