A Central California man convicted of pointing a high-powered laser at a police helicopter was sentenced Monday to spend 14 years in federal prison, a term prosecutors believe to be among the region's longest for such a crime.
Sergio Patrick Rodriguez, 26, of Clovis, was accused of pointing a green laser 13 times more powerful than common pointers at a Fresno Police Department helicopter in 2012. The helicopter had been called to an apartment complex where an emergency helicopter for a children's hospital also reported being targeted by a laser. Prosecutors said Rodriguez purposely aimed his laser at police.
"This is not a game,'' U.S. Attorney Benjamin B. Wagner said in a statement. "It is dangerous, and it is a felony.''
A jury found Rodriguez guilty of attempting to interfere with the safe operation of an aircraft and aiming a laser pointer at an aircraft.
Attorney Dale A. Blickenstaff, who represented Rodriguez, could not be reached for comment Monday. But in court papers he argued for a shorter sentence, saying his client meant no harm while he played with his young family, aiming the inexpensive store-bought laser skyward. A sentence of five years seemed fitting, Blickenstaff said.
"Such a sentence is still harsh,'' he said. "But it is arguably just punishment under these facts.''
While handing down the sentence, U.S. District Judge Lawrence J. O'Neill of Fresno described Rodriguez as a "walking crime spree'' and said he carried out an act with deadly potential. Rodriguez has a significant criminal history that includes several probation violations and gang affiliations, prosecutors said.
Authorities say such laser strikes can blind pilots and lead to crashes. In 2013, there were 3,960 reports of people shining lasers at aircraft over the United States, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. The U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of California prosecutes cases in 34 of the state's 58 counties, and it says the Fresno and Bakersfield airports experience the most laser cases.
Lauren Horwood, a spokeswoman for the office, said the next longest sentence given to somebody for shining a laser at an aircraft in that region was three years and one month.
Rodriguez was tried in December over three days alongside his 23-year-old girlfriend, Jennifer Lorraine Coleman, who was found guilty on one count of aiming a laser pointer at an aircraft. She is scheduled to be sentenced in May and could receive up to five years in prison.