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Media Alerts - United States v. Smith - 8th Circuit
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July 24, 2014
  United States v. Smith - 8th Circuit
Headline Eighth Circuit panel affirms exclusion of defendant's expert testimony and proposed jury instructions concerning laser beam aimed at aircraft

Area of Law Federal Aviation Safety

Issue(s) Presented Whether the district court properly excluded defendant's expert testimony concerning the perceived range of a laser and rejected defendant's proposed jury instructions regarding an "intent to hit" the aircraft.

Brief Summary A jury convicted the Defendant of violating 18 U.S.C. ยง 39(a), which makes it a criminal offense to "knowingly aim the beam of a laser pointer at an aircraft . . . or at the flight path of such an aircraft." The conviction stemmed from the Defendant pointing a laser beam into the sky and illuminating the cockpit of a police helicopter. At trial, Defendant argued that though he pointed a laser beam at the aircraft, he believed that the laser beam would not actually reach the helicopter and therefore did not "knowingly aim" at it.
In support, Defendant proposed a jury instruction stating that he could not knowingly aim his laser beam at the aircraft if he mistakenly believed that the laser beam could not reach the aircraft. He also attempted to introduce expert testimony regarding the perceived range of a laser to support his mistaken belief. The District Court refused the proposed instruction and excluded the expert testimony based on the Court's interpretation of the statute as simply requiring knowledge that the laser beam was pointed at an aircraft, with no intent to hit the aircraft required.

On appeal of the conviction, a panel of the Eighth Circuit, in its first interpretation of the statute, affirmed the District Court's rulings. The panel concluded that the use of the word "aim" in the statute does not require an "intent to hit" the object at which the laser beam is directed. Rather, the panel held that based on the common usage of the term "aim at" and the wording of the statute as a whole, "knowingly aim" means simply to knowingly point a laser beam at an aircraft, and does not require an offender to intend for the laser beam to strike the aircraft at issue.

The full text of the opinion may be found at

Panel Chief Judge Riley and Circuit Judges Beam and Shepherd

Date of Issued Opinion June 27, 2014

Decided Affirmed

Docket Number 13-2728

Counsel Frederick Franklin for the United States and Richard Haile McWilliams for Defendant

Author Chief Judge Riley

Case Alert Circuit Supervisor Joelle Larson, University of Minnesota Law School

Edited: 07/24/2014 at 11:42 AM by Joelle Larson

    Posted By: Joelle Larson @ 07/24/2014 11:30 AM     8th Circuit  

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