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US: Appeal of 3-year sentence hinges on "willfully" aiming vs. "willfully interfering"

The language of a statute prohibiting “willfully interfering with an aircraft operator with reckless disregard for human life” is at issue in the appeal of a Massachusetts man who was sentenced in January 2011 to three years in prison, plus two years probation and a $200 fine.

The August 2012 case in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit hinges on instructions given to the jury during Gerard Sasso’s trial in January 2010. The judge in that trial told the jury that Sasso could be convicted for willfully aiming the laser at the helicopter. The judge also said that the government did not have to prove that Sasso knew that his aiming would interfere with the pilot.

In the August 2012 appeal, both prosecutors and the defense agreed that on December 8 2007, Sasso deliberately aimed a Class 3B green laser at a helicopter. He admitted “I was stargazing and I saw the helicopter and I decided to light it up.”

However, a public defender for Sasso argued that “willfully” modified “interfering," meaning that Sasso had to willfully know that what he was doing would interfere with the aircraft operator. The defender said this argument was made many times during the January 2010 trial but was incorrectly ignored when the judge issued jury instructions.

The government countered that the jury instructions were correct, since in their view, Sasso did not have to know that lasing an aircraft was illegal, and thus the January 2010 conviction was legally valid.

Arguments were heard August 1 2012. No ruling has yet been issued in the case.

From the National Law Journal