United States v. Gardenhire

Summarized by:

  • Court: 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Archives
  • Area(s) of Law: Criminal Law
  • Date Filed: 04-30-2015
  • Case #: 13-50125
  • Judge(s)/Court Below: Circuit Judge Wardlaw for the Court; Circuit Judge Paez and Senior District Judge Ponsor
  • Full Text Opinion

It is a plain error if the court concludes an act to be reckless when no subjective evidence associated with the risk was presented.

Adam Gardenhire, a high school student, was charged with two counts of knowingly aiming the beam of a laser pointer at an aircraft in violation of 18 U.S.C § 39A. Although he intentionally aimed at the aircraft, Gardenhire did so because he was playing with a friend, and claimed to have never seen it hit the aircraft. Since there were no sentencing guidelines corresponding to the violations at the time, the district court used a reckless enhancement under U.S.S.G. § 2A5.2(a)(2)(A). The district court found clear and convincing evidence that Gardenhire was aware of the dangers of pointing the laser at the aircraft, and emphasized the need for deterrence. On appeal, the Ninth Circuit found that the district court erred in concluding that Gardenhire acted recklessly because there was no subjective evidence that Gardenhire was aware of the risk associated with his behavior. Relying on United States v. Sasso, the panel reasoned that the district court diluted the mens rea of the reckless enhancement. Furthermore, using United States v. Naghani and United States v. Gonzales to prove logical inferences, the panel reasoned that there was no evidence introduced to support a subjective awareness since Gardenhire was only warned about not pointing it at anyone’s eyes, and Gardenhire could not have concluded that the laser would expand and refract upon hitting the cockpit glass. The FBI reports even stated that Gardenhire “didn't think about the dangers.” Also, the panel found that the district court’s error was not harmless given the district court judge’s post-hoc statements regarding the district court judge’s commitment to the idea that Gardenhire was reckless. The district court judge emphasized deterrence, and said the district court would likely impose the same sentencing guidelines on remand. Therefore, the panel instructed the case to be assigned to a different district court judge on remand. VACATED and REMANDED, with Instructions.

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