(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
An Omaha man failed to convince a federal appeals court to overturn his conviction for pointing a laser at a police helicopter whose pilots said they were temporarily blinded by the refraction of the beam.
Michael A. Smith, 30, was sentenced to 24 months in prison and three years of supervised release for pointing the beam at an aircraft. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit on Friday upheld the trial conviction.
On July 11, 2012, according to the ruling, the authorities were notified that someone pointed a laser into the cockpit of an inbound Southwest Airlines Boeing 737. Federal law makes it a crime to “knowingly aim” a laser at an aircraft. The Eighth Circuit ruling was the first time that the court interpreted the language of the laser law.
A local police department sent out a helicopter to find the source of the laser beam, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. As the police helicopter approached the approximate location of the laser’s source, Smith, standing in his backyard, directed his laser pointer’s green beam at the helicopter, illuminating its cockpit, the appeals court wrote. The pilots managed to pinpoint Smith’s location. A patrol officer on the ground arrested Smith.
At the time of his arrest, Smith, according to police testimony, said that “he had been shining [the laser] at aircraft that he thought were far enough away that it wouldn’t actually reach those aircraft.”
In Omaha federal district court, Smith argued he did not believe the laser pointer would reach the aircrafts and that, as a result, he could not be prosecuted under federal law.
U.S. District Judge John Gerrard refused to allow a defense expert—a physics professor named David Sidebottom—to testify at trial. Sidebottom wanted to establish that low-level atmospheric dust could cause someone to think a laser pointer’s beam cuts off when in reality it continues much farther. The Eighth Circuit upheld the exclusion of Sidebottom’s proposed testimony.
The appeals court, in its analysis of the language of the laser law, said that “aiming may accompany an intent to strike the target, but the word’s common meaning is not limited to such instances.” The court pointed to the phrase “Ready, aim, fire!”
“A ceremonial commander at a military memorial orders the riflemen to ready their rifles, aim the barrels, and then pull the triggers,” Chief Judge William Jay Riley wrote for the appeals panel. “The riflemen dutifully obey the second of these three orders not by manifesting any present intent for either barrel or bullet to strike any target, but instead by directing the rifle’s gaze.”
Congress, the appeals court said, specifically used the phrase “aim at,” rather than a “result or contact oriented term” such as “knowingly illuminating an aircraft.”
Smith’s lawyer, Richard McWilliams, an assistant federal public defender in Omaha, wasn’t immediately reached for comment.