Because Mens Rea Applies To Boys Too

It’s unlikely that there is any young man who doesn’t find a laser pointer incredibly cool.  Adam Gardenhire, then 18 years of age, did, and on March 29, 2012, played with a green one by pointing it upward, where a Cessna Citation seven-passenger jet was making its approach to Burbank Airport.  That’s where the fun and games ended.

The captain and pilot were onboard the private jet when the laser struck the pilot’s eye. Although momentarily blinded and distracted by the laser, the pilot was able to safely land the aircraft. Gardenhire also aimed the laser pointer at a police helicopter that was dispatched to determine the
laser’s source.

They located Adam, who admitted it was him playing with the green laser pointer.

Gardenhire, a high school student, explained to the FBI that he had borrowed the laser from a friend. Gardenhire and his friend had been using the laser to play around in their neighborhood, pointing it at parked cars, stop signs, and other objects. Gardenhire’s friend warned him against shining the laser directly at anyone’s eyes because it could blind someone.

Though Gardenhire intentionally tried to hit the aircraft, he never saw the laser actually reach it. He later learned that he “struck two planes with the laser.” At the time, Gardenhire did not think about the dangers of pointing the laser at an aircraft and was simply bored.


Kids do dumb stuff for fun, but that didn’t prevent his prosecution in federal court for a violation of 18 U.S.C. § 39A.  He entered into a plea agreement, but in the Presentence Investigation Report, probation recommended a recklessness enhancement, which doubled the agreed-base offense from 9 to 18.  The court then imposed an above-guidelines sentence of 30 months, where the plea agreement called for a diversionary sentence.

The district court placed particular emphasis on the “need for deterrence” and expressed the hope that the sentence would be publicized so that “young people” would know this sort of “prank” cannot be tolerated.

Writing for the 9th Circuit, Judge Kim Wardlaw expressed why mens rea matters.  In contrast to the dismissal of charges against Chicago police officer Dante Servin, where so many were outraged by Judge Dennis Porter’s “technical” concern for proof of mens rea, the decision in Adam Gardenhire’s case demonstrates why a defendant’s mental state is, and should be, a matter of significant concern.

There was no question that Adam did what he was alleged to do, aim the laser pointer at the Cessna.  It was a deliberate act, and the law presumes that a person intends the natural consequences of his deliberate acts.  But then, as much as a person like Servin knows what aiming and shooting a gun will do, the same can’t necessarily be said of a laser pointer.

Nonetheless, the prosecution defended the sentencing enhancement on appeal, contending that Adam knew what he was doing, and was told by his friend not to point it at someone’s eyes as it could blind them.  He aimed it at the Cessna, and that was enough.

The court reviewed for “clear error,” the most difficult standard for reversal.

Clear error requires a “definite and firm conviction that a mistake” occurred. We will reverse only when a district court’s factual findings are “illogical, implausible, or without support in the record.”

Despite this high standard of review, the court held that the finding of recklessness was not proven by clear and convincing evidence, as required for a sentence enhancement.

In concluding Gardenhire was aware of the risk caused by his actions simply because he deliberately aimed at the aircraft, and purportedly knew the beam could reach the aircraft, the district court significantly and erroneously diluted the mens rea required for application of the recklessness enhancement.

The mental state of the defendant is of grave significance in determining what wrong, if any, happened.  Here, the court rejected lumping them all together, as so many argued should be the case when it was a police officer on trial, and instead gave serious review to the details surrounding the underlying crime to ascertain whether the defendant’s mental state was proven.

[T]he bare admission that Gardenhire intentionally aimed the laser, knowing that it was dangerous to shine the laser in someone’s eyes, does not support the inference the district court drew—that he was aware of the dangers to the aircraft from doing so. Had the government submitted circumstantial or direct evidence that Gardenhire was aware of the laser’s long-distance power, expansion capabilities, and ability to refract off the cockpit glass, the district court could have found subjective awareness. But it did not; nor did it demonstrate that as of six weeks after the effective date of 18 U.S.C. § 39A, “Aiming a laser pointer at an aircraft,” the dangers of shining a laser at an aircraft were of general knowledge to the average person, or of specific knowledge to teens.

Granted, there were external factors that applied that may well have persuaded the court to take a harder look than it might otherwise have done. Gardenhire was a teen playing around, hardly a hardened criminal in need of imprisonment.  The law was new, and the seriousness of a laser pointed at a plane was not well-known, or more likely, a matter of political pandering more than actual harm.

And most importantly, the government was satisfied with a diversionary sentence in the plea agreement, making its argument on appeal that Gardenhire should get 30 months remarkably disingenuous.  Similarly, the district judge’s “send a message” sentence at the expense of an 18-year-old’s life over a “prank” was hardly compelling.

Yet, without the ability to reverse for lack of proof of the necessary mens rea of recklessness, despite the commission of an intentional act that was in clear violation of law, there would have been no mechanism with which to reverse this ridiculously severe and misguided sentence.  Mens rea matters.  And if it matters, it should matter for every defendant, whether he’s loved or hated.

18 thoughts on “Because Mens Rea Applies To Boys Too

      1. Ehud Gavron

        One more: “the same can’t necessarily be said of a laser point.”

        Love your analysis – thank you for the hard work!

        Tucson AZ

  1. Jim Majkowski

    After reading the opinion (well worth the effort), I inferred that the (unnamed) district judge is the sort who enjoys inflicting draconian sentences. The 9th Circuit ordered that a different judge be assigned for resentencing after remand, and I doubt that often occurs. I’m suspicious that the applicable US Attorney’s office wasn’t working too hard have this kid heavily punished and was merely attempting to placate the local hanging judge. What think you?

    This time I’ll skip the tummy rub your work merits.

  2. Jim Tyre

    The court reviewed for “clear error,” the most difficult standard for reversal.

    The Seventh Circuit said it best:

    We will not reverse a determination for clear error unless it strikes us as wrong with the force of a 5 week old, unrefrigerated, dead fish.

    S Industries, Inc. v. Centra 2000, Inc., 249 F.3d 625, 627 (7th Cir. 2001)

      1. Jim Tyre

        Bad facts may make bad law, but bad litigants make good quotes.

        S Industries was one of many fronts of then-infamous trademark troll Leo Stoller. It wasn’t until a few years later that Stoller was labelled officially as a vexatious litigant and then put out of business. But the court knew with whom it was dealing.

  3. JD

    They located Adam, who admitted it was him playing with the green laser pointer.
    He must have missed the news about a fellow Californian, Sergio Rodriguez, who was sentenced to 14 years in prison just 3 months earlier for engaging in the same conduct.

      1. JD

        I probably would. It’s how I started my day when I was in high school and still is today.

          1. JD

            I was no poindexter. I picked up the paper reading by watching my folks and older siblings. It was just a normal thing for us.

    1. Zach

      Rodriguez was sentenced in March 2014, two years after this incident took place. So unless your newspaper comes in the form of a crystal ball, you probably didn’t read about it back then.

      In any case, 14 years is also a very harsh sentence, though it seems like Rodriguez was sentenced more for being an overall “bad guy” than for this specific act. He was on probation for an unrelated offense at the time. At sentencing, the judge apparently unloaded on Rodriguez for a criminal record dating back to when he was 13, four DUIs in five years, and for lying to the arresting officers about his identity.

      None of this should be particularly relevant to Rodriguez’s intent to commit a crime either, but clearly his judge didn’t care much about mens rea either.

      1. SHG Post author

        So a post about Gardenhire is magically transformed into a post about Rodriguez, because . . . reasons. If you understood how the sentencing guidelines worked, you would understand where prior criminal history alters the calculus.

        But that would only matter if this was a post about Rodriguez, which it is not. And so, it ends here.

  4. Glen

    I am an ATP-rated pilot with over 20 years with a major U.S. carrier. I have repeatedly encountered handheld laser pointers aimed in the direction of my aircraft when on short final yet have never once suffered from any vision impairment. Indeed, professional aviators are routinely expected to safely operate our aircraft directly into a vastly more powerful light source: the sun.

    The criminalization of this harmless behavior represents mindless hysteria.

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