United States v. Smith: Specific Intent Requirement and Federal Crimes

Posted by Steve Eversole | Jul 10, 2014 | 0 Comments

Our Alabama criminal defense lawyers know that federal cases can involve serious penalties.

United States v. Smith is a federal criminal case involving a conviction for knowingly aiming a laser pointer at an aircraft.

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According to court records, authorities in Nebraska were alerted that a green laser pointer had illuminated the cockpit of a commercial airliner. The aircraft in this case was a commercial Boeing 737.  In response, the police dispatched a helicopter along the flight path of the airliner in an attempt to catch the person responsible.  When the police helicopter reached the location of where the incident was reported, an individual aimed a green laser pointer at the helicopter cockpit.

At this point, the pilots attempted to locate the person with the green laser pointer but were unable to do so and turned away. However, before leaving the airspace, the suspect pointed the green laser at the helicopter again.  This series of events repeated itself again and again until police were finally able to apprehend the suspect.  Officers allegedly caught him on the ground while shining the green laser pointer at the police helicopter.  He admitted to police that he was pointing the laser at aircraft earlier in the night but said that he thought they were too far away to actually be hit by the light.  He apparently denied pointing the light at the police helicopter.

His defense was that he could not have “knowingly” aimed the beam at the airplane if he believed it was too far away to be illuminated by the laser.  The question at issue was whether or not the statute was violated if a defendant knowingly points a laser at what he believes to be an aircraft regardless of whether the defendant actually believed the laser was capable of hitting the aircraft.  The trial court concluded that it only mattered that the laser was pointed at the plane and a belief that it was possible to hit the indented target was irrelevant for the purposes of this law.

Ultimately, the appellate court held that the trial court was correct in its interpretation of the Federal Statute, 18 U.S.C. 39(A)(a).  This law makes it illegal to aim a laser at an aircraft in the United States or the recognized airspace of the United States and is a federal law that is effect in every jurisdiction including Alabama.

The greater issue in this case, beyond pointing lasers at aircraft windows, is how a specific intent crime is defined.  There are basically three types of criminal intent in our legal system.  A general intent crime requires only that the defendant intend to engage in certain conduct.  It does not require any further thought or intent.  For example, in a DUI, a defendant must intend to drive a car when he or she is intoxicated.  However, the individual does not need to know he or she is intoxicated. This intent is not to drive drunk but only to drive—while they happened to be intoxicated.

A strict liability crime requires no mental intent.  For public policy reasons, some crimes, like statutory rape, do not require any knowledge on the part of the defendant.  In the case of statutory rape, it is generally not a defense that a person didn't know that the person with whom they had sex was underage.

Finally, a specific intent crime requires specific mental intent to commit the crime.  In this case, it was a specific intent to aim a laser at a plane.  It did not matter if the defendant believed he could not actually hit the plane.

Contact Birmingham Criminal Defense Attorney Steven Eversole at (866) 831-5292.

Additional Resources:

United States v. Smith, June 27, 2014, United States Court of Appeals for the Eight Circuit

About the Author

Steve Eversole

Admitted to practice in All State and Federal Courts in Alabama: AllAlabama State Courts, Alabama Supreme Court, Alabama Court of Appeals,Northern...

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