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US: Appeals court says federal prosecutors do not need to show intent in laser cases

A federal appeals court has upheld the two-year prison sentence for a 31-year-old Omaha, Nebraska man convicted of aiming a laser pointer at a jetliner.

The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday rejected Michael Smith's defense that he didn't believe the laser would reach the airliner, saying federal law doesn't require prosecutors to show he intended to hit the aircraft.

Below is more information, including a summary of the court’s decision and a link to the full decision.
Smith was the first person convicted in Nebraska under the federal law signed by President Barack Obama in February 2012 making it a crime to aim laser beams at aircraft or its flight path.

Police say they found Smith in his backyard on July 11, 2012, pointing a laser at a plane shortly after an airline pilot reported a laser being beamed into his cockpit as he was landing. More information is in our stories on the original search for Smith, on his April 24 2013 conviction, and on his July 22 2013 sentencing.

The court summarized its decision as follows:

This case calls upon us to interpret 18 U.S.C. § 39A(a) for the first time. This subsection imposes criminal liability on anyone who “knowingly aims the beam of a laser pointer at an aircraft in the special aircraft jurisdiction of the United States, or at the flight path of such an aircraft.” 18 U.S.C § 39A(a). A jury convicted Michael A. Smith of violating § 39A(a) after which the district court sentenced him to 24 months in prison and 3 years of supervised release. Smith challenges his conviction, arguing the district court should have read § 39A(a) to provide Smith a mistake-of- fact defense based upon his reasonable belief that his laser would not reach the targeted aircraft. Claiming the word “aims” “carries with it an ‘intent to hit’ the object,” Smith argues the district court erred in (1) excluding expert testimony as to the perceived range of a laser, and (2) rejecting his defense instructions. Because we do not read § 39A(a) to require an “intent to hit,” we affirm.

Elsewhere in the decision, the Appeals Court upheld the District Court’s interpretation of prosecuting a person who “knowingly aims the beams of a laser pointer at an aircraft...”:

The district court concluded, “[§] 39A is violated whenever a person points a laser pointer at what the person knows to be an aircraft, regardless of that person’s belief, whether it be reasonable or not, that the laser pointer will not reach the aircraft or affect its crew.” First, the district court noted “the term ‘knowingly’ . . . clearly applies to what the laser is pointed at”—that is, “the defendant has to know that he’s aiming . . . a laser beam at an aircraft” as opposed to believing the target is “a shooting star” or “a satellite.” The district court then reasoned the central question revolved around the meaning of “knowingly aim.” The district court read “to aim at” as simply meaning “to point[ ]at,” reasoning this definition was supported by the statutory text’s common meaning, its legislative history, and the circumstances underlying the statute’s enactment. Based on this interpretation, the district court ultimately refused Smith’s proposed theory-of-defense instruction.

During the second day of trial, Smith called a physics professor, Dr. David Sidebottom. Following the government’s objection, Dr. Sidebottom testified during an offer of proof that a layer of atmosphere close to the ground contains dust which reflects the laser’s beam. Dr. Sidebottom explained that once the beam clears this dust layer, there can be fewer particles to reflect the laser, making it sometimes appear as if the beam stops abruptly when it actually continues on. The district court excluded Dr. Sidebottom’s testimony because under the district court’s interpretation of § 39A(a), it did not matter whether Smith believed—reasonable or not—that the beam could reach the helicopter.

From The Republic. The complete text of the Appeals Court’s decision is here.