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
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.