Gerard Sasso made some bad decisions.
As humans have for thousands of years, he enjoyed stargazing. He also had an odd habit of collecting laser pointers – perhaps inspired by that scene in the 1985 Val Kilmer film “Real Genius” where a laser leads to an improbably awesome party.
Mr. Sasso’s use of a laser, though, didn’t lead to a super cool party thrown by engineering students – even though it was not far from M.I.T. Instead, it led him to federal prison.
Rather, Mr. Sasso pointed one of his lasers at a police helicopter escorting a natural gas tanker through Boston Harbor.
Who knew a shopping trip to Staples could lead a person so awry?
The police take laser pointers very seriously in Boston. One of the officers in the chopper saw the laser light. He told the pilot to avoid looking directly at it. The pilot swerved to avoid the laser pointer, but was unsuccessful and, to quote the First Circuit, “the laser beam hit the aircraft, filling the cockpit with bright green light.”
Things got more intense from there.
The troopers elected to abandon their escort mission of making sure natural gas doesn’t explode in Boston Harbor, in order to track down the laser pointer menace.
As they flew toward their quarry in a zigzag pattern, the beam struck the helicopter several times. The final strike occurred when the helicopter was approximately half a mile away from the source.
The “final strike” indeed.
Finally, the helicopter called for ground support. Officers went to Mr. Sasso’s apartment (which was where the helicopter told them to look).
Mr. Sasso was evasive with the officers. Eventually,
[One of the officers] noticed an item on the defendant’s nightstand that appeared to be a laser pointer. When asked about the artifact, the defendant began to backtrack. According to [the officer], the defendant said, “I did it. It was me,” and added that he was sorry and did not mean to cause all the commotion. The defendant explained that he had a penchant for stargazing, and that when he saw the helicopter he decided to “light it up.” When he heard the helicopter directly overhead, he “got scared” and hid the laser that he had pointed at the helicopter in a baseboard heater.
Mr. Sasso then showed them where he kept nine other laser pointers.
He was charged with a violation of 18 U.S.C. § 32(a)(5) – performing an act that interferes with an aircraft with reckless disregard for human life.
Mr. Sasso went to trial and was convicted. He was sentenced to three years in prison.
His defense was that he admitted he used the laser pointer, but that it was just a laser pointer and he didn’t mean to harm anyone or foresee that harm could result.
The jury was instructed that:
the government must prove that the defendant willfully interfered with a person engaged in the authorized operation of an aircraft. To act “willfully” in this context means to act deliberately and intentionally, on purpose, as opposed to accidentally, carelessly or unintentionally. If a person’s actions interfere with an aircraft operator, you may infer that the person acted willfully if his actions were deliberate and intentional and had the natural and probable effect of interfering with the aircraft operator.
The defense objected – Mr. Sasso acted willfully to the extent that he intended to aim the laser, but he did not intend to interfere with the aircraft’s operation.
The trial court disagreed and gave the instruction above.
The First Circuit, in United States v. Sasso, agreed with Mr. Sasso’s lawyers. As the court of appeals said,
Reasonable jurors could understand from the quoted instruction that it would be enough to convict the defendant if they found that he deliberately pointed a laser in the helicopter’s direction and interference occurred as a natural and probable consequence of that action, regardless of whether the defendant knew that interference was a natural and probable effect of the action. So viewed, the instruction did not adequately distinguish between negligently (but innocently) pointing a laser at objects in the sky without any intent to interfere with the operation of an aircraft and “willfully . . . interfer[ing],” which is the level of scienter demanded by the plain text of the statute.
And, with that, Mr. Sasso’s conviction was vacated and the case sent back for a new trial.